MANILA -- It was an unconventional start to a long-shot campaign.
The seven prospective senators declared their candidacies from the mezzanine of an overcrowded cafe in Caloocan, a city in northern Metro Manila that has become ground zero in the Philippines' deadly war against drugs.
Usually, politicians in the Philippines like to hold campaign rallies in a big field, not a neighborhood where drug-related deaths come daily. But this was the point.
"I think it's quite symbolic that we are holding the launch here, especially because there have been so many victims in the area. As you may know, the killings go on. It never stopped," said Jose Manuel "Chel" Diokno, a human rights lawyer and Senate candidate with the Otso Diretso ("Straight Eight") opposition alliance, at the Feb. 12 rally.
As the country gears up for midterm elections in May, many senatorial candidates are campaigning on economic themes -- including the need to tame rising inflation and create more jobs in a country dependent on remittances from an estimated 10 million Filipinos living overseas. But the midterms are also seen as a referendum on the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, and opposition candidates such as Diokno are hoping to mount a credible challenge to his party and policies.
Polls have shown solid support for Duterte, who is riding high with a 60% approval rating. The former mayor of Davao came to office in June 2016 promising to feed dead drug addicts to the fish in Manila Bay -- and recently promised to expand the deadly crusade.
Diokno says the number of Filipinos killed due to the drug war is much higher than is officially claimed, pointing to a recent Supreme Court resolution that puts the overall number killed at 20,322 from July 1, 2016 to the end of November 2017. This averages almost 40 deaths per day -- and far exceeds the roughly 5,000 cited by a government agency.
Diokno, who also chairs the Free Legal Assistance Group, sees the May 13 poll as a last battle against an administration he claims has undermined the nation's democratic foundations.
Half the parliament's 24 Senate seats come up for contention -- among a staggering 17,000 open official positions. A friendlier Senate could pave the way for Duterte to push through changes such as overhauling the constitution and making controversial alterations to the tax code.
"One by one, the institutions that are supposed to check on abuse by the executive department are under assault, and the only institution remaining that is capable of standing up to it is the Senate," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "If this is captured, they can virtually do anything they want."
In 2016, candidate Duterte pledged to wipe out crime and illegal drugs in six months -- killing criminals as necessary. Within a week of his entering office on July 1, the police confirmed 100 drug-related killings. Many were extrajudicial, the work of unidentified vigilantes, and the pattern was set.
Filipinos working abroad were staunchly behind the longtime former mayor of Davao, the rough city in the south where he administered tough medicine against lawlessness and poverty. For them, Duterte's anti-drug crusade means safer streets for their loved ones back home.
"He promised this and he delivered on his manifesto," a local economist told Nikkei. "It is not as if we did not know what he is capable of."
The shabu scourge
According to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), 5,104 "drug personalities" were killed by the end of 2018 in over 117,000 drug operations that also saw more than 167,000 arrests. The anti-drug drive shuttered 285 dens and laboratories; over 52 million Philippine pesos ($1 million) has gone to informants, and "lawmen" received some 20 million pesos in bounties.
Of 25.62 billion pesos in drugs and drugmaking paraphernalia seized, 18.83 billion pesos' worth was linked to shabu, the methamphetamine drug of choice in the Philippines -- heroin and cannabis are far less popular. Shabu is cooked up domestically, but also smuggled from China and Myanmar. The drug stimulates users, and fends off sleep and hunger. The overworked and underpaid are therefore particularly susceptible.
The PDEA's tallies tell only a part of this war that has, self-evidently, not been won in the six months originally promised. In mid-February, when he was doorstepped by a local reporter, Duterte threatened to take the war up a notch. "I am reiterating my warning [that] this drug problem is a national security threat -- meaning to say it can destroy the Philippines." The reporter pressed the president on whether the war would get bloodier. "I think so," said Duterte.
Even the country's Catholic bishops, who only recently began to find a collective voice condemning the government-sanctioned drug killings, agree the Philippines needs to tackle its drug problem -- as do other countries in the region. But the relative scale of the problem is unclear due to poor data.
There is a regional precedent for the violent anti-drug war: Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra mounted a much briefer campaign in early 2003 that resulted in over 2,000 extrajudicial killings.
But Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told Nikkei that such violent campaigns are as ineffective as they are deadly.
"[These] usually drive drug use further into the shadows, which is counterproductive from a public health perspective," he said. "At the same time, they sometimes offer major organized crime an opportunity to consolidate distribution networks down to the street -- and major organized crime never seem to be brought to justice through these efforts."
Skeptics note that the street price of shabu has remained remarkably stable, as has its purity -- which has always been low. "This drug war is political more than anything else," a human rights monitor told Nikkei.
More than 300 enforcers had been killed by the end of 2017, when the release of statistics was dropped shortly after fact checkers caught Duterte exaggerating numbers. Evidently, the dead seldom fired back, and the weapons collected from them often later reappeared beside new bodies.
Duterte's depiction of the Philippines as a narco-state is diminished by the country's lack of exports -- it is a consuming country. Some politicians may well profit from drug money, but many other illicit sources are open to them, including gambling.
Outside monitors are skeptical of the PDEA's figure of 5,104 dead by the end of 2018. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch estimated 12,000 deaths by 2017. Academics who have used Google scrapes to monitor killings reported in the media say there are over 7,000 reports by that count alone.
"It is extremely approximate," said one of the professors keeping tabs, noting that many of the killings took place in private homes in front of relatives. There are 74 documented cases of under-18s being killed, and at least 13 mayors and eight deputy mayors are dead.
The aggregate figure cited by Diokno suggests 1,200 deaths per month in the latter half of 2016 and 2017 -- much higher than anything seen in Mexico or Colombia. Extrapolating that average, the number of dead by the end of February 2019 would be over 38,000.
Duterte has threatened to escalate the war on drugs, but if the situation simply holds steady, over 86,000 people will be dead by the time he leaves office in June 2022. As numbers are obfuscated, the official quibble -- as it was in Thailand -- will be that many of these died in the white noise of existing violence, rather than as a direct result of the drug war. Whatever the case, the Philippines has a major problem with violent deaths.
The campaign has lately moved to the outlying cities of Metro Manila and to other population centers, including Cebu in the central Visayas region and General Santos on the southernmost island of Mindanao.
"I think it is getting worse -- it is just not being reported," Diokno told Nikkei. "We continue to receive on a daily basis reports of killings from different parts of the country. We have noticed these to be very well-organized, and that they appear to be result-oriented."
Intimidation plays a role in underreporting. When journalist Maria Ressa was recently arrested on a previously dropped libel charge, many saw it as retribution for tough coverage of the Duterte administration by Rappler, the online news organization she heads. Critical journalists are routinely subjected to abuse by a well-organized army of online trolls.
"The crucial element is disinformation that is very close to the administration," a diplomat told Nikkei. "They are having a lot of success getting out their side of the story."
The Philippines officially has some 105 million people, of whom about 80% are Catholic. The church, mired in sex-abuse scandals that Duterte has revealed affected him as a youngster, has been faulted for its weak stand. But in January, the biannual plenary of the Catholic Bishop's Conference of the Philippines finally promised to do better.
"Forgive us for the length of time that it took us to find our collective voice," the bishops said in a pastoral letter. "We, too, needed to be guided in prayer and discernment before we could guide you."
Two issues rattled the bishops: proposals to restore the death penalty, and to reduce the age of criminal responsibility to nine. On the latter, Duterte is expected to get his way, but will probably have to settle for 12.
"Duterte is a product of this dysfunctional political system we have," a local human rights observer told Nikkei. "People lap up even his foulest jokes." His frankness is certainly striking. In September, the president openly said, "My only sin is the extrajudicial killings."
Catholic church authorities are alarmed at how little it takes to get on the drug watchlist, particularly when anonymous tipoffs can be used to settle other scores. "Drug personalities" who are spared a bullet but are incarcerated suffer greatly. "The conditions for prisoners is close to what is defined as torture," one international observer told Nikkei. Only jails in El Salvador and Guatemala are more crowded.
Duterte has rejected the International Criminal Court's probe into potential criminality, but so far escaped any effective foreign censure. Embassies in Manila have concluded that "megaphone diplomacy" does not work, and diplomats will only speak off the record.
The European Union, although only the country's fourth-largest trading bloc, has used its generalized system of preferences (GSP+) as leverage to call out the country's human rights record. In 2014, the number of products with zero tariffs entering the EU was expanded to over 6,000 from 2,442.
But in a 2018 report, the EU flagged Duterte's war on drugs as a serious concern that could cost the Philippines' its preferential trade status. "Extrajudicial killings, in particular in the fights against illegal drugs, and related impunity continue to be a serious concern, as well as the possible reintroduction of the death penalty and the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility," the report said.
In October, the Philippines was re-elected to the United Nations' 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva. The previous month, former Foreign Minister Alan Cayetano received a sprinkle of polite applause when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly.
"The Philippines under the leadership of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is one with the United Nations in being uncompromising on the issues of rule of law, just and equitable peace that leads to order, development and prosperity, and the protection of each and every human being's rights," he said. "We are on track in salvaging our deteriorating country from becoming a narco-state."
The economy was not deteriorating when Duterte took office in 2016, however. It remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, and ratings agencies have welcomed a recent raft of economic reforms -- including a "rice tariffication" law and an amendment of the charter of the central bank to enhance its supervisory powers.
But annual growth slowed to a three-year low in 2018 at 6.2% -- below the 6.5-6.9% target range. The latest data for the fourth quarter of 2018 is even lower at 6.1%. Inflation averaged 5.2% in 2018, the highest since the 2008 global financial crisis, and consumption growth was down to 5.6% from 5.9% year on year.
Approved foreign investment pledges in 2017 fell sharply to their lowest level since 2005, a drop largely attributed to business outsourcing companies, which have been spooked by Duterte's outbursts against the West and international criticism of his human rights record. Foreign direct investment overall is expected to fall back slightly to $10.2 billion this year from $10.4 billion in 2018.
Poor are hit hardest
The war on drugs has had the greatest impact on the poorest of the poor -- people who consume as little as they generate. Social workers estimate that as many as one in six people living in slums are unregistered. They lack birth certificates and other official documentation, and do not qualify for education or other benefits. They are officially nameless -- economic non-starters by accident of birth.
Jose Luis Martin Gascon, chair of the National Human Rights Commission, confirms the problem of unregistered children but cannot put a number on it. People born in conflict zones who migrate to the cities are part of the problem. Parents send children to work on the streets because schooling is not an option; some inevitably fall into crime.
Gascon told Nikkei that he faults Duterte for "outright rejection of human rights, due process, presumption of innocence, and other guarantees that are in our bills of rights.
"The public mood was to support a different form of leadership that might deliver on the promises that democracy failed," he said. "Looking back on history, authoritarian leaders don't have a good track record in delivering quality of life."
Kenji Kawase, Nikkei Asian Review chief business news correspondent, contributed to this report.