Is This the End of Duterte’s Politically-driven War on Drugs?

Is This the End of Duterte’s Politically-driven War on Drugs?
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

The two current leading candidates for president aim to not be labelled “soft on crime,” but wish to de-emphasize what has clearly been a brutal crackdown that has alienated a growing part of the population.

By Nico Ravanilla, Renard Sexton, and Dotan Haim

As the campaign to replace term-limited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has kicked into high gear, one hot topic is what will happen to his notorious “war on drugs.” Aggressively confronting drug dealers and users was a cornerstone of Duterte’s 2016 electoral campaign. Duterte largely delivered what he promised — a brutal crusade that left thousands of people dead, alienated allies like the European Union and United States, and prompted an international investigation into human rights abuses.

Although initially popular, the anti-drug campaign lost support over time as more and more Filipinos came to fear that they or someone they know would get inadvertently targeted. Inconsistency in police reports about the deaths of three teenagers in 2017 set off a wave of protests. A recent study indicates that up to a third of respondents who claimed to support the drug war on surveys were falsifying their preferences due to fear.

Duterte himself turned his attention to a similarly brutal campaign aimed at curbing communist “terrorism.” In response to the shifting political landscape, the two current leading candidates for president, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr and current Vice President Leni Robredo have indicated that they would make changes to the drug war. They each aim to not be labelled “soft on crime,” but wish to de-emphasize what has clearly been a brutal crackdown that has alienated a growing part of the population. The risk of prosecution from the International Criminal Court has also become increasingly salient.

How was Duterte able to implement this constitutionally dubious policy with such brutal efficiency over the past six years? And why would the police stick their neck out for a policy that would make clearing other crimes more difficult by alienating witnesses and could leave officers exposed to retaliation? Numerous presidents have entered Malacañang Palace with grand plans, but most run aground in the face of quiet opposition or inadequate capacity in the national bureaucracy. Controlling the Philippine National Police is complicated by the fact that under Philippine law, local mayors “exercise operational supervision and control” over the police, rather than national authorities.

Although international debate has focused on the national authorities, drug war implementation was in fact driven by the Philippines’ nearly 1500 municipalities, whose mayors used their discretion to either aggressively implement or quietly restrain the drug war. The choice of which strategy to employ was largely driven by political networks and patronage. Mayors who were part of the old patronage network associated with former president Noynoy Aquino largely chose to slow-walk the drug war. They had access to political networks to help them win re-elections without needing to implement such a risky policy. For many, it was out of the question.

But the political motives for implementing the drug war were very different for mayors from small parties, independents or those not aligned with the Aquino network. Compared to their establishment counterparts, these “outsider” mayors received 40% less in public works procurement funds — the primary source for patronage for local politicians.

Without these traditional resources needed to secure their long-term place in politics, outsider mayors resorted to a second option: aggressively implementing Duterte’s flagship war on drugs. Although it was risky to tie their own fates to Duterte in the long term, it would potentially allow them to win crucial backing from the president. Duterte, a former mayor himself, understood these incentives facing mayors without access to the lucrative “insider” political networks well.

It worked. Outsider mayors implemented the drug war far more aggressively than insiders, to signal to Duterte their loyalty and alignment. Outsider-led municipalities oversaw 40% more anti-drug operations and were 60 per cent more likely to have a police officer kill a drug suspect.

This bandwagoning paid off. While local outsiders historically had a harder time winning re-election than insiders, they had greater success in the 2019 midterms during Duterte’s administration. In previous elections, mayors outside of the main political networks were 20–30% less likely to be re-elected. But in 2019, outsider mayors that allied themselves with Duterte via the drug war achieved significantly higher re-election rates than former insiders.

What does this mean for 2022? Both Robredo and Marcos bring distinct political networks from Duterte’s new insiders, meaning that there is likely to be a renewed realignment after the election. Even if the war on drugs itself is scaled back, the next president may take a page from Duterte’s book to use local politicians to drive their own signature policies.

Continued democratic backsliding in the Philippines may continue. Or attempts to scale back Duterte era policies to more progressive alternatives might succeed. But they may be stopped based on the next president’s ability to win local allies in a decentralized Philippines state.

Nico Ravanilla is Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Diego. 

Renard Sexton is Assistant Professor at Emory University. 

Dotan Haim is Assistant Professor at Florida State University.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum.  East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics,  economics, business, law, security, international relations and society  relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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