Duterte's drug war has killed thousands, but poll numbers for president are good

As a candidate, Rodrigo Duterte diagnosed drugs as the scourge of Philippine society, linking their use to rape and murder. The narrative propelled him to victory in 2016 elections.

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines' war on drugs has killed thousands, drawn global condemnation and enmeshed the police force in scandal. Yet President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody campaign is overwhelmingly popular here.

The reasons are manifold, but they hinge on Filipinos' apparent willingness to overlook the human toll as long as Duterte's government satisfies their individual economic and political interests, analysts say. For a politician who promised to eradicate criminals — "kill them all," he said — Filipinos appear to judge Duterte to have kept his word.

The country's police chief resigned this month over accusations that he allowed 13 officers to resell confiscated drugs and release a crucial suspect. The chief, Oscar Albayalde, denied the allegations, which date from his time as a provincial commander in 2013. Investigators called for graft and drugs charges against him.

The controversy is a blow to the credibility of the police, inviting renewed scrutiny of the drug war. But experts said it is unlikely to derail Duterte's signature policy.

"The war on drugs has been synonymous with the president. They mutually feed each other," said Francisco Ashley Acedillo, a former lawmaker. "Until one is undone, the other will not be undone."

In September, the government cited an 82% satisfaction rating for the drug war in a Social Weather Stations survey as it pushed back on a United Nations resolution calling for the investigation of human rights violations. Police records show over 6,000 deaths in anti-drug operations, but human rights watchdogs count more than 20,000 others killed by unknown perpetrators.

Polling released last month put Duterte's satisfaction rating at 78%, slightly below previous results. The president enjoyed a higher rating of "very good to excellent" among wealthier Filipinos, though his popularity among the poorest respondents has decreased.

On the campaign trail, Duterte diagnosed drugs as the scourge of society — claiming that their use was connected with rape and murder. The narrative struck a chord with his supporters, propelling him to victory in 2016 elections. (Officials in 2015 estimated that there were 1.8 million drug users in the Philippines.)

Duterte was the only candidate who offered a solution to the prevalence of drugs, a longtime frustration among the urban poor, said Jennifer Oreta, an assistant professor of political science at the Ateneo deManila University.

But the crackdown targets the poorest Filipinos while satisfying the middle class and overseas Filipinos who are a pivotal in determining election outcomes, Oreta said.

For Maria, who lost a brother and father to the drug war in 2016, the shakeup among senior police is "just right." She asked to be identified by only her first name for safety reasons.

Plainclothes police officers killed her father when they stormed her house after midnight in a slum north of Manila, she said. He was listed as one of the deaths in police operations. As she readied his funeral arrangements the next day, her brother's body was wheeled in, covered in packaging tape.

"Some people are scared to talk because (Duterte) is still sitting in power. But when he's gone, they'll come out," Maria said.

So far, Duterte has been little scathed even on matters where his administration has been at odds with public sentiment, notably his turn away from the United States and pivot to China.

Polls show that Filipinos distrust Beijing — which asserts sovereignty over waters claimed by the Philippines — but perhaps not enough to bother rural communities who stand to benefit from Chinese infrastructure loans. When Duterte appeared to side with Beijing after a Chinese trawler sank a Filipino fishing boat, his popularity was largely unaffected.

While cozying up to China, Duterte has raised salaries for the armed forces, effectively buying the acquiescence of a group that had expressed concerns about Beijing's expansion in the South China Sea, senior military officials have said.

That's not to say that all Filipinos accept the way Duterte has prosecuted the drug war.

Amnesty International cites previous surveys showing that Filipinos fear for their families' lives and prefer due process over summary executions.

The International Criminal Court is probing killings in the Philippines, and Duterte retaliated by withdrawing the country's membership.

But in the absence of more-forceful external intervention, experts say the drug war's toll shows no sign of easing.

"The operation has taken a life of its own," said Oreta, the political scientist. "It won't stop just because there's controversy on top."

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.