Duterte: A Strongman in Decline

Since his inauguration on June 30, 2016, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, while riding a wave of populism, has aggressively sought to address the Philippines’ numerous internal security challenges. After nine months in office, Duterte’s efforts have come under increasing criticism from the Roman Catholic Church, foreign governments, human rights groups, leftists, and opposition politicians, while the president’s approval ratings have gradually begun to slide with the public. With this in mind, it is imperative to understand the progress and setbacks associated with Duterte’s security policies, as well as the causal factors associated with these, in order to understand the path ahead for the Philippines and its controversial president.

Duterte’s internal security efforts have been wide reaching. They has entailed entering into peace negotiations with proxies of the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA), expanding the scope of peace negotiations with Moro Muslim militants to include factions of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), intensifying counterterrorism efforts against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other militants aligned with the Islamic State (IS), and prosecuting a bloody campaign against alleged drug traffickers and users, which has resulted in 8,000 deaths as of March 2017.

As noted above, Duterte has sought to cultivate peace negotiations with the NPA, likely driven both by his own leftist background and that of his key advisors. This manifested in efforts to select cabinet members acceptable to the NPA (who currently oversee agrarian reform, social welfare, labor, and the national anti-poverty commission) and the release of key NPA affiliates for peace negotiations. Although the government and NPA both launched unilateral ceasefires in July 2016 and held three rounds of peace talks in Europe, the two sides were unable to reach an agreement on a bilateral ceasefire, and the unilateral ceasefires collapsed in February 2017 amid increasing attacks on security forces. The collapse of peace talks was due in large part to the NPA’s maximalist negotiation position, in which it demanded the release of 392 additional prisoners and the withdrawal of security forces from areas under its “control,” while failing to halt its efforts to raise money through extortion.

With the Moro Muslim groups, Duterte has sought to develop a new implementing law for the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB), after the Aquino administration’s efforts to pass a law creating a new autonomous region in western Mindanao were scuttled by fighting between police commandos and Moro insurgents in January 2015. As part of his efforts, Duterte has sought to include major MNLF factions which had been left out of Aquino’s efforts to negotiate with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). However, this has significantly complicated negotiations, as MNLF factional leader Nur Misuari has evinced strong dislike of both the MILF and other factional leaders. In addition, efforts to create a new autonomous region with significantly devolved control over government runs counter to the Philippines’ historically Manila-centric system of government, and will likely meet with strong legislative scrutiny (despite Duterte’s nominal majority) and judicial review, likely pushing Duterte to water down the implementing law against MILF and MNLF wishes. Duterte’s personal devotion to negotiations with the Moro groups has appeared equivocal at times, with the president appearing to prevaricate between focusing on passage of the implementing law and a broader focus on achieving federalism.

Duterte’s efforts to severely weaken ASG and other IS-linked groups have benefitted from the diversion of military units previously engaged against the NPA, although the resumption of hostilities with the NPA will likely erode this advantage. Under this strategy, the Philippine military has fought and won major setpiece battles against ASG and its allies in Basilan and Lanao del Sur. However, such groups have demonstrated a masterful ability to regroup by scattering to adjacent islands and urban areas, while leveraging their strong familial and financial ties to the local community and government. At the same time, the military has proven incapable of halting maritime kidnappings by ASG’s Sulu faction in the Sulu Sea, which have targeted progressively larger vessels since the fall of 2016. ASG and its allies (particularly the Maute Group based in western Mindanao) have increasingly sought to stage bombings in major urban areas such as Manila, Hilongos, and Davao City, where Duterte previously served as mayor. The discovery that the son of a MNLF factional leader had helped facilitate the Davao City bombing in September 2016 is indicative of the increasing impact of IS ideology on young residents of western Mindanao, particularly in the context of slow progress on CAB implementation.

Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign, which represented a nationwide expansion of his previous efforts as mayor of Davao City, has reportedly driven an increase in the street price of methamphetamines and cocaine due to scarcity. However, the campaign has been widely criticized for targeting poor, low level drug users without recourse to due process or adequate rehabilitation facilities, while providing police officers with financial incentives for extrajudicial killings. The campaign’s effectiveness has also been undermined by extensive corruption within the Philippine National Police (PNP), which culminated in the kidnapping and murder of a Korean businessman in October 2016, forcing Duterte to announce a temporary halt to the anti-narcotics campaign. The campaign resumed in February 2017, generating additional controversy as Duterte engineered the arrest of opposition politician and critic Senator Leila de Lima, on what are widely viewed as specious charges of narcotrafficking.

As of March 2017, setbacks to Duterte’s highly ambitious internal security policy agenda have not seriously weakened the president’s public approval rating, which remained at 83% in January (as opposed to 91% in July 2016). Duterte also maintains control of both houses of Congress, despite the loss of four senators to the opposition over de Lima’s arrest. However, several thousand people have turned out for protests against the Duterte administration’s in recent months, with counterprotests drawing limited attendance despite official support. Moving forward, Duterte’s security policies may prove an increasingly double-edged sword, if his administration is viewed as incapable of stopping terrorist attacks outside Mindanao, loses supporters in Congress due to controversial legislation on Mindanao or federalism, or fails to pursue necessary economic reforms due to the president’s focus on security.

John Quentin is a United States-based political risk analyst with a background in government intelligence, now working in the private sector with a particular focus on the Asia region. John has conducted intensive analysis on South and Southeast Asia for a variety of corporate and government audiences for the past nine years.

Photo credit: PCOO EDP

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