Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has frequently been compared to Donald Trump. They are both anti-establishment, deliberately offensive, outrageously cavalier and completely undiplomatic politicians who excel in demagoguery. The main difference between them is that Duterte has allegedly ordered and carried out the killing of numerous criminals, while the only things that Trump has killed are his failed businesses and his dignity.
But perhaps an even better comparison is between Duterte and the Dark Knight.
The Duterte narrative reads like a Batman comic. In a crime-infested society, where the police force is toothless and politicians and judges are in the pockets of drug lords and crime cartels, one man has taken matters into his own hands. He seeks to restore peace and justice by circumventing the corrupt legal system and feckless bureaucracy… without any superpowers.
(Other Filipinos drew this analogy as well. This video was uploaded by YouTuber “Henry Oatmeal”.)
But how accurate is this narrative? As an outsider, I’ve inferred from the massive scale of the current War on Drugs that that the Philippines has been so paralysed by narcotics that the only feasible solution is Duterte’s shock therapy. The impression I’ve gotten is that the judicial system is completely ineffective and has disappointed so many Filipinos for so long that they look to Duterte’s extra-judicial tactics for justice. But I have put the cart before the horse by judging the magnitude of the problem from the response, rather than assessing the scale of the problem first.
According to statistics reported in this TIME article, the situation in the Philippines does not seem that severe. Although there are about 100 million people in the Philippines, the country had fewer cases of crimes involving physical injury in 2014 than the UK with a population of 64 million. That same year, the number of reported robbery cases in the Philippines was less than in Belgium, with a population that is 10% of the Philippines’. Between 2010 and 2015, police statistics show that the total number of murders in the country’s 15 largest cities was an average of 1202 per year, which is far less than the 3500 people who have been killed since the start of the War on Drugs on 1 July.
More importantly, statistics on drug use in the Philippines suggest that Duterte has exaggerated the scale of the problem. According to this article written by students from the University of the Philippines, President Duterte stated in his first State of the Nation Address that there are probably 3.7 million drug addicts now. But research by the Dangerous Drugs Board suggests that there were 1.7 million drug users in 2008 and 1.3 million in 2012, which is a huge improvement from the 6.7 million drug users reported in 2004. The data cited by the students also shows that drug raids and arrests increased from 2004 to 2014, which suggests that law enforcement agencies have been effective under previous presidential administrations.
Hence, in the eyes of Duterte’s critics, while drug use and drug-related crimes are certainly a challenge to social security and national development, a full-scale war is disproportionate and unwarranted.
But of course, valid questions can be raised about these statistics – for example, how many crimes are unreported in the Philippines? Also, for many Filipinos, statistics are irrelevant. What matters is how they feel about security – what their threshold of tolerance is, and how desperate they are to resolve these problems – and the judicial system, which is widely perceived as broken and corrupt according to Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch. Judging from Duterte’s landslide victory, the near-universal trust that Filipinos place in Duterte, and the low trust in the courts, it seems that the Batman narrative has captured the imagination of the Filipino population.
In any case, there is no doubt that President Duterte sees himself as the hero of the hour. He obviously doesn’t believe that the country’s police and judicial system can restore law and order as they are now. That’s why he has ordered the police to shoot suspected drug pushers whether they resist arrest or not and encouraged citizens to kill drug addicts themselves. Forget about the presumption of innocence or the right to a fair trial – the President has promised to reward citizens who kill drug traffickers and pardon any officer accused of human rights abuses. To be fair, the media rarely highlights Project “TokHang” – the strategy of the police to visit individual homes and convince drug pushers and addicts to surrender and enter rehab. But this is little consolation for the families of drug suspects who have been killed by the police or vigilante groups without a fair trial.
Furthermore, he has bypassed official channels by announcing the names of 158 public officials who are allegedly involved in the drug trade and ordering them to surrender or face the consequences. His contempt for the judicial system and rule of law is clear in his mockery of it. In response to criticism of his support for extra-judicial killings, he said that he would “just bring a drug lord to a judge and kill him there”, and “that will no longer be extra-judicial”. He also boasted during his presidential campaign that he would pardon himself for mass murder.
Duterte’s iron-fisted approach was formed in the crucible of the smaller war on drugs and crime in Davao. According to this account, the city was like Gotham before Duterte was elected as Mayor. Through tough legislation, ruthless law enforcement, and the use of extra-judicial killings primarily carried out by the Davao Death Squad, Duterte managed to transform the city from a cesspool of crime to one of the safest urban areas in the Philippines. His crime-fighting tactics ranged from bloodthirsty (the death squad killed over 1400 people between 1998 and 2015) to absurd (he once forced a tourist to swallow his cigarette butt for contravening a smoking ban). But supporters say that Duterte’s style of governance was necessary in a city located in a rough neighbourhood plagued by secessionists, communist rebels and Islamist terror groups.
While President Duterte is not a billionaire playboy with a Kevlar suit, he has always governed using Batman’s weapon of choice: fear. He strikes fear in the hearts of drug addicts and mules – more than 700,000 people have surrendered to the police for drug rehab and amnesty. But his ruthlessness has also inspired hope in millions of Filipinos that they can live in safety and security.
This analogy to the Caped Crusader helps explain Duterte’s widespread appeal. His selfless refusal of cabinet positions and an award nomination has endeared him to his supporters. In stark contrast to the stereotypical power-hungry politician, he reluctantly agreed to run for office after his supporters begged him for months to do so. He is like Batman hiding in the shadows, selflessly shunning the spotlight. To his supporters, he is the hero that the Philippines both needs and deserves.
Like Bruce Wayne, Duterte believes that the only way to get rid of the scourge of lawlessness and corruption is for one brave soul to get his hands dirty. But there is no doubt that he has taken the Batman narrative to a dangerous extreme.
Of the 3500 Filipinos who have been killed in the War on Drugs, about 1300 were killed in police operations, while over 2200 were killed by vigilante groups. This means that more suspects have been killed by private citizens than by law enforcement officers. Moreover, since the police have been given carte blanche by the President, numerous stories of police abuse have emerged. There have been cases of mistaken identity in which innocent people were killed. There have been allegations of fabricated reports and the planting of guns, money and drugs in innocent people’s houses.
While Mr Duterte understands the political potency of naming villains and delivering swift “justice-on-demand”, he doesn’t seem to realise how easily this could spiral out of control. If vigilantism is allowed to increase unchecked, it may be used to target any suspected criminal for any felony without any need for evidence. In fact, it may even be used to settle personal grudges without any fear of real consequences. Mr Duterte is familiar with this – he shot a fellow student in law school and was merely expelled, although he was still allowed to graduate. The uptick in violence could fuel demand for more violence in response. Thus, violence begets more violence, and life inches closer and closer to a Hobbesian reality.
Duterte’s supporters would probably point out that the situation did not spin out of control in Davao. But Duterte is now the leader of a country fifty times the size of Davao, where the same dynamics do not apply. Yet, he continues to respond to criticism of his policies with invective-laced tirades, whether it is from fellow political leaders, human rights groups, state leaders and representatives, or international organisations. He has insulted President Obama and the US ambassador, threatened to pull out from the UN, and sworn at the EU. He has said that journalists are “not exempted from assassination”. In one of the most prominent displays of his cavalier attitude, he said he was unconcerned about the international community’s opinion of him because he is not president of the international community.
It can even be argued that Duterte’s siege mentality has contributed to his shift in foreign policy. Sensing greater support for his domestic policy from China than the US, he has decided to cosy up to the Chinese and alienate the Americans. Of course, there are other factors involved in this policy shift, which he has been advocating for many months. But the shift is probably facilitated by his disdain for the Americans who have criticised his domestic policy. In deciding to negotiate issues related to the South China Sea dispute directly with the Chinese, and unilaterally declaring the end of war games with the US, President Duterte is playing a risky diplomatic game.
All in all, Duterte’s powerful and colourful personality is a game-changer for the Philippines. His supporters hail him as a hero like Batman. His critics probably liken him to the Joker, with his loose-cannon mouth and his penchant for crude humour. In the long run, however, President Duterte must depart from his heroic style of governance and focus more on restoring the rule of law, strengthening the nation’s judicial system, and spurring economic growth. If he does not, he will only be targeting the symptoms and not the root of the country’s problems. Furthermore, unfettered vigilantism may lead to increased lawlessness despite his tough stance on crime. Even if crime rates do fall and rapid economic development takes place over the next six years, these gains may be reversed after he leaves office if he does not build strong institutions.
In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne realises that he is vulnerable as a man but immortal as a symbol. If President Duterte wants to achieve the same immortal legacy, he must focus on building trustworthy, functional and responsive state institutions that can outlast his presidency.