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Asia Insight

Duterte's legacy on the line as Philippine elections loom

Drug war, infrastructure, China pivot define his presidency

CLIFF VENZON, Nikkei staff writer | Philippines

MANILA -- At the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 22, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte talked about his war on drugs but without indulging in his usual combative "kill 'em all" rhetoric.

"I have instructed the Department of Justice and the Philippine National Police to review the conduct of our campaign against illegal drugs," Duterte said in a recorded message. "Those found to have acted beyond bounds during operations shall be made accountable before our laws."

Duterte's war on drugs has killed over 6,000 mostly petty suspects, according to official data -- a fraction of the estimates from other informed quarters. The bloodshed has been attracting global attention since it began in 2016, and more recently an International Criminal Court (ICC) probe.

The 76-year-old Duterte's uncharacteristically measured words are a sign that he is looking to his legacy as he wraps up his six-year term in office. Candidacies for the May 2022 elections -- from president down to municipal council members -- must be filed in the first week of October.

The electioneering is already heating up -- and the Duterte name looms large in it. The president may be constitutionally barred from standing for a second term, but he plans to be on the ballot paper for the vice presidency instead. Candidates to succeed him include disenchanted ex-allies, while speculation swirls that his daughter Sara may also run -- despite her denials.

Election campaigns will now preoccupy politicians and may put pending legislative reforms -- including economic liberalization measures -- on the back burner.

At least four members of Duterte's cabinet -- including the transport and public works ministers -- may run for the senate. If they do, election rules require they quit their posts upon filing their candidacies.

Political drama: Manny Pacquiao, left, and Isko Moreno, right, have already announced their runs for the presidency but Sara Duterte -- the most favored potential candidate -- has said she is "not running for a national position." Her supporters, however, expect her to step up at the eleventh hour. (Source photos by AP, EPA/Jiji and Getty Images) 

Attention should shift to Duterte's possible successors. Contenders include boxing icon Sen. Manny Pacquiao and Isko Moreno, the popular mayor of Manila. Both were once supporters of Duterte, but are now eager to expose the president's failings, be it his pandemic response or his disruptive succession plans.

The stakes are high for Duterte. He has opted to run for vice president in an attempt to circumvent the six-year constitutional term limit. The constitution was changed in 1987 to prohibit two-term presidencies after President Ferdinand Marcos was deposed. He had remained in power for over two decades, latterly ruling as a dictator through martial law.

Duterte's bid for a further term in office might stem from his concerns over retribution. The two presidents preceding Duterte both jailed their predecessors, and Duterte claims the vice presidency will shield him from legal action.

Sara Duterte, the president's daughter and mayor of Davao City, his old stamping ground, has topped opinion polls to be his successor -- but continues to deny any plans for a presidential bid.

Philippine presidents and vice presidents are elected separately. The mayor of Davao has yet to throw her lot in with her father publicly, and for now is keeping her distance. She has slammed her father's divided PDP-Laban party, and stated that only one Duterte at a time should run for a national post.

The outcome of the 2022 elections is still some way off, but it will clearly affect Duterte's legacy and political fate. His bloody drug war -- which he unambiguously telegraphed before taking office -- is considered a human rights abomination abroad but has enjoyed wide domestic support. It will almost certainly go down in history as the signature policy of the Duterte presidency.

Judges at the ICC on Sept. 15 finally authorized a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity in the president's war on drugs. The ICC complaint estimated a far higher death toll -- between 12,000 and 30,000 -- than the official tally.

On Sept. 21, over 1,000 people staged a protest against Duterte's human rights record and other issues. It was the 49th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by Marcos, with whom some compare Duterte. The late dictator's namesake son is also considering a presidential bid for 2022.

Over a thousand people protested against President Rodrigo Duterte's human rights record and other issues on Sept. 21, the 49th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by Ferdinand Marcos, the former president who turned dictator. (Photo by Jilson Tiu)

"If the opposition takes power, then they will likely use the ICC investigation to hammer home the negative aspects of Duterte's anti-drugs war, whereas a pro-Duterte successor would be more likely to downplay or dismiss the ICC investigation," Peter Mumford, an analyst at Eurasia Group, told Nikkei Asia.

The ICC probe extends to 2011 and Duterte's tenure as mayor of Davao, where a similar campaign of killings were carried out by vigilantes dubbed the Davao Death Squad.

Duterte's aides have downplayed the probe and insist the court at The Hague in the Netherlands has no jurisdiction since Manila officially withdrew from the Rome Statute of the ICC in 2019.

They maintain the Philippine justice system works, even though only one case -- that of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos -- led to the conviction of three police officers. There is a video showing the schoolboy being dragged off by policemen, and he was later shot in the head.

Oblivious to international opinion, Filipinos appear from opinion polls to support Duterte's war on drugs overwhelmingly -- even though few apparently believe the victims offered resistance, as the police usually claim. Duterte has argued that peace and order precede progress, and his harsh approach has won him high approval.

"In terms of public perception, a lot of people feel that drug dealers and addicts on the street are less visible," said Gregory Wyatt, the director for business intelligence at PSA Philippines Consultancy.

Whether that perception helped businesses in any way remains a question. After peaking at $10.3 billion in 2017, annual foreign direct investment has continued to decline. Pre-pandemic figures in 2019 were about $8.7 billion, matching 2016 levels.

The war on drugs damaged the Philippines' international reputation, a foreign businessperson in Manila told Nikkei. "Human rights issues enter into corporate decisions -- the rhetoric also matters," he said.

Duterte signed an anti-terrorism law last year, which critics claim is in fact intended to muzzle opposition. The climate of fear has also been raised by the killings of dozens of human rights activists and lawyers.

Duterte taunted local tycoons and forced them to concede. In 2019, he threatened to jail and "rough up" some businessmen over a water contract dispute. ABS-CBN, the largest TV network, was forced to close last year after its owners fell foul of the president. The network was also shut down in the Marcos years.

In March, Duterte said that one thing he will take to the grave was being able to "dismantle the oligarchs holding the government."

Duterte launched an anti-graft campaign by firing officials accused of corruption, but some were in fact merely transferred to other posts.

His aggressive infrastructure push, branded Build, Build, Build, was worth over $160 billion. It won plaudits for helping maintain economic growth above 6% before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. State infrastructure spending relative to GDP has nearly doubled on Duterte's watch, boosting growth and jobs.

"Some education facilities and transport links including roads and airports have seen significant improvement, which will help the Philippines narrow the perennial gap it endures between its potential and actual GDP growth," said Katrina Ell, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics.

The first tunnel boring machine for the Japan-backed Metro Manila Subway Project arrived in February, but construction has yet to begin. (Photo courtesy of Department of Transportation of the Philippines)

But delays have hit some of the mammoth infrastructure projects that headlined Build, Build, Build. The 357 billion peso ($7 billion) Metro Manila Subway has yet to begin construction even though tunnel boring equipment arrived early this year. Vince Dizon, the president's infrastructure adviser, said 40 of 119 major projects will be completed next year.

Duterte's COVID-19 pandemic response has stained his economic legacy. The president relied on retired generals who enforced prolonged lockdowns that shrank the economy by 9.6% in 2020 -- the worst result in Southeast Asia. "We forecast the Philippines to return to pre-pandemic levels of output in the final quarter of 2022, making it the laggard in Asia," Ell said.

Less than a fifth of Filipinos have been vaccinated as the country battles its third wave of infections. Early this month, Duterte drew the ire of business owners and workers alike for delaying the easing of lockdown by a further week. "I would not want to be remembered as one who caused the death of so many," the president said, with no hint of irony.

Duterte's foreign policy pivots have sent shockwaves around the globe. On his first visit to Beijing in October 2016, he met President Xi Jinping and announced his "separation" from the U.S. during a meeting with Chinese businesspeople.

Duterte set aside Manila's arbitration victory at The Hague against Beijing over the South China Sea territorial dispute. And on his watch, the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that allows U.S. forces to operate in the Philippines for extended periods was stalled.

Duterte's biggest threat to the U.S. alliance was in February last year when he moved to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which eases the entry of U.S. forces into the Philippines and operationalizes the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Duterte retracted the abrogation in July and thanked the U.S. for donating vaccines.

"We have pursued an independent foreign policy for the first time in the history of the republic and done well by it, earning a heightened respect from the community of nations," Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a congressional budget hearing in August. "If we had been a tail, we are now wagging the dog."

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario sees things rather differently, and calls Duterte's acquiescence to China a "national tragedy."

Eurasia's Mumford views Duterte's foreign policy forays as "largely unsuccessful." China pledged billions of dollars worth of infrastructure investments, but it has so far completed one project -- a bridge crossing Manila's Pasig River.

"Meanwhile, China was able to expand its presence in the South China Sea and, critically, Duterte's pro-Beijing approach shifted the balance of views within ASEAN toward China," said Mumford.

Whether an ally or an enemy, Duterte's successor will inherit a very mixed legacy and the policy dilemmas that come with it.

Moody's Ell has warned of deepening social inequality due to the pandemic and lockdown measures. "It will take time along with targeted and effective government policies for that gap to narrow," Ell said. "Chronic inequality will be a lasting scar of the pandemic if not addressed."

Managing foreign policy will have consequences on the economy. "If the Philippines wants to be more assertive in the dispute with China in the South China Sea, China is going to ramp up the economic pressure, just like they did in the [Benigno] Aquino years," said Wyatt of PSA, the consultancy.

"In terms of the drug war, I think the biggest challenge is what to do with its legacy," Wyatt said. "Filipino society might not be ready for a true reckoning of what was done during the drug war, but might slowly move towards anti-drug operations that are led by investigations, and not violence."

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