President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial ‘war on drugs’ looms large in the 2022 election for his successor.
On September 15, 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) pre-trial chamber authorised Prosecutor Karim Khan to investigate Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for crimes against humanity, covering both the anti-crime violence for which he may have been responsible as Davao City Mayor and as President. The investigation runs from November 1 2011 to March 1 2019 — the period under the ICC’s jurisdiction. The ICC has lent credence to estimates that the national ‘war on drugs’ may have had as many as 30,000 victims. The outcome of the May 2022 elections could determine whether Duterte and his collaborators will be held to account and whether his campaign of mass violence will continue.
Since he took office in July 2016, Duterte has presided over a programme of political violence, ostensibly as an anti-crime campaign. The point of Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ was not entirely about curbing crime, but also scoring political points and ruling urban sectors coercively, as he did in Davao City. He had been elected mayor of Davao City almost continuously from 1988 to 2016, except when term limits barred him from re-election, so he ran, and won, instead as vice-mayor (2013-2016) and congressman (1998-2001). Albeit at a much larger scale, Duterte’s national ‘war on drugs’ strongly resembles the modus operandi of the vigilante Davao Death Squad, which killed an estimated 1,424 people from 1998 to 2015.
These tough-on-crime tactics contribute to electoral success while instilling fear. Surveys have shown the ‘war on drugs’ to be popular, for instance, with 82 per cent of respondents stating that they were ‘satisfied’ with the ongoing campaign. But surveys also show that respondents have a strong preference for police to arrest suspects alive and that very few believe claims that suspects fought back (“nanlaban”) as the reason why the police had to shoot. Respondents are also worried that they themselves or someone known to them will become a victim of extrajudicial killings. Moreover, protests grew sharply after the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos on August 16, 2017. CCTV footage showed that the boy had not attacked the police but was dragged into an alley, where he was shot.
So far, most presidential candidates for 2022 have opted for strategic ambiguity, using carefully calibrated language. In 2017, Senator Panfilo Lacson had protected Duterte by quashing a Senate investigation into the Davao Death Squad. Similarly, Senator Manny Pacquiao (the boxing champion) and Manila City Mayor Francisco ‘Isko Moreno’ Domagoso have defended the ‘war on drugs’ against criticism. Now that they are running for President, erstwhile Duterte allies have re-styled themselves as Duterte critics and hedged their previous positions. Lacson and Domagoso have promised to continue President Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign but without extrajudicial killings and with the implementation of critical police reforms. Pacquiao now supports the ICC investigation against Duterte.
Now that they are running for President, erstwhile Duterte allies have re-styled themselves as Duterte critics and hedged their previous positions.
Others are positioning themselves as continuity candidates. Ferdinand ‘Bong Bong’ Marcos, Jr., namesake and son of the former dictator, stated he would continue the ‘war on drugs’ campaign with the same ‘vigour’ but qualified that he would also focus on the rehabilitative or ‘prevention side’ of the campaign. He has gone so far as to say that he would shield Duterte from the ICC by not cooperating with the investigation, and portrayed the ICC as a foreign intrusion.
Two other potential presidential candidates have a direct interest in obstructing the ICC probe. Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, has filed as a candidate for re-election as mayor but could still file a late presidential candidacy by mid-November via substitution. In addition to her position as heir of President Duterte’s political dynasty, she was mayor of Davao City for three years (2010-2013), with her father as her vice mayor. This is mostly within the period of the ICC investigation, and she could be implicated if ICC charges are filed. Senator Ronald ‘Bato’ dela Rosa, the official candidate of the current ruling party PDP-Laban, was mentioned in the ICC’s authorisation document. As former Chief of the Philippine National Police (2016-2018), he had stated publicly that the aim of the campaign was to kill drug criminals.
Only two candidates have consistently opposed the war on drugs. In March 2017, Vice President Leni Robredo took a clear and defining stand of dissent in a taped message at a United Nations meeting on extrajudicial killings, hitting hard at the government for summary executions in the ‘war on drugs’. During a brief 19-day stint in 2019 as co-chairperson of the Inter-Agency on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD), Robredo produced a report recommending an investigation into possible abuses. As a presidential candidate, she has reiterated her call for accountability and justice for the victims. Meanwhile, socialist party Laban ng Masa (Struggle of the Masses) candidate Leody de Guzman supports the prosecution of Duterte and his accomplices through the local judicial system and the ICC process.
If a Duterte proxy or Marcos wins, architects and supporters of the violent drug war may have no incentive to change course, perpetuating impunity. Marcos, who currently does not have a running mate, was endorsed by Sara Duterte — signalling a possible Marcos-Duterte ticket. In this light, Marcos’s stance on obstructing the ICC makes perfect sense. Such an alliance could well augur a re-escalation of ‘war on drugs’ violence, which has declined significantly since 2017. Surveys show Sara Duterte and Marcos as the most popular candidates, with Robredo presently trailing at sixth place.
Candidatures will be finalised by November 15. At stake in this election is justice for the victims of the mass violence under Duterte. Also at stake is an increased risk that thousands more may be killed, depending on who ends up taking his place in the Malacañang presidential palace.
Sol Iglesias is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science University of the Philippines-Diliman.