Poor Filipinos tell Liz Dodd that President Duterte’s promises to improve their lives is what matters most to them

When Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte proclaimed in December that he had personally gunned down three drug dealers from a motorbike while he was mayor of Davao City, commentators in the West recoiled. The US threatened to withhold a $430 million aid grant over concerns about abuse of civil liberties; Amnesty International warned that his claims would encourage more vigilante killings. But just days later, a social attitudes survey revealed that the majority of the Philippines’ population – more than 60 per cent – was satisfied with his leadership.

Duterte was elected in May to a six-year term. Despite thousands of deaths, international outrage and burned bridges, his approval rating dropped by a mere one per cent in the final quarter of 2016. Key to this is his support among the country’s poor, many of whom lost everything when Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) hit the country three years ago. These voters, living under galvanised steel sheets and scraping a living, put Duterte in power. For them, civil liberties have taken a back seat to whether or not they can feed their children.

Filipinos elected a man with a proven track record of tackling corruption and poverty in a big city like Davao

After the previous administration was widely perceived to have failed to deliver on its promises to the poor – who make up a fifth of the population, according to the government’s own statistics – Filipinos elected a man with a proven track record of tackling corruption and poverty in a big city like Davao. Duterte has pledged to lift some 1.5 million people out of poverty in every year of his term.

Gomer Padong, who works with poor communities as part of the Philippine Social Enterprise Network, explained that Duterte was in the right place at the right time. ‘Culturally, the Philippines is a fragile democracy that is looking for a Messiah to deliver them from poverty and inequality, and to provide opportunities for the marginalised and the middle class, and women as well as men,’ he said. ‘During the election period Duterte was presented as the last, best hope.’

Crispin Sacay is a rice farmer in Ormoc in the Philippines who lost his home, his coconut trees and his livelihood, all destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan. At the kitchen table of his new home, he said he was optimistic for the future, because he believed Duterte would keep his promises. ‘Before Duterte, some of the Government-oriented projects would not reach the small farmers, only the ones who had government connections,’ he told me. ‘There is hope that Duterte can bring the change.’ He liked the President’s commitment to stop charging irrigation fees for farmers, which in the summer can reach 700 pesos ($14) per field.

Another promise was to end the drugs trade, so as Crispin’s young children ran in and out of the room, I wondered whether he was troubled by the extrajudicial killings. ‘I’m not worried about them,’ Crispin said with a shrug. ‘Criminality should be stopped, so the children can be safe.’

Some 6,000 people – roughly 1,000 every month – have been killed in anti-drug operations in the Philippines since Duterte came to power. At least 2,086 were killed by police in anti-drug operations; according to official figures, more than 3,000 others have died in ‘unexplained circumstances’ – in other words vigilante killings, like those Duterte boasted about. A spokesperson waved aside the President’s admission, calling it hyperbole, but two Philippines senators have said his claim is grounds for impeachment.

For the average Filipino, however, such concerns come second to a helping hand out of poverty. ‘The general Filipino people would not think of human rights at this point,’ said Padong, the aid worker. ‘They would think of food on the table, and opportunities to come out of poverty. They believe Duterte can provide that. The attitude of the poor is wait and see. Let’s see if he delivers.’

TOUGH JUSTICE: Aftermath of a vigilante killing in the Philippines
TOUGH JUSTICE: Aftermath of a vigilante killing in the Philippines

Even Father Edwin Gariguez, Executive Secretary of NASSA, the aid programme of the Catholic Church, to which most Filipinos belong, agreed. ‘It’s true, this president is very unconventional,’ said the priest. ‘He cannot control his mouth. He is mean. But the government is seriously trying to implement its pro-poor agenda. There are changes that are happening – the media focuses too much on his character. The influence of the rich élite is not as strong as with previous administrations. When you talk to ordinary people, they like him. They like his style. In this president, there is sincerity in how he wants to bring about change.’

But Padong said that in many places the anti-poverty initiatives that Duterte had promised had either not succeeded or, in some cases, materialised at all. In a number of the villages – or barangays – I visited, people who had voted for Duterte had not seen any results so far.

‘I don’t actually know of any [government-sponsored poverty alleviation programmes] in this locality.’ said Norma, who works in a meat shop on Leyte island in the eastern Philippines, and who has a Duterte bumper sticker on her truck. ‘We are aware that there is a movement for change, and they’ve enlisted people, but there’s no concrete programmes yet.’ Padong said: ‘Duterte has just created this vision, which is different from the previous government. Now [with the killings] the issues are the pro-poor policies vs human rights.’

One international leader Duterte may have found common ground with is Donald Trump. The President-elect reportedly spoke on the phone with Duterte shortly after his election; afterwards Duterte claimed that Trump endorsed his anti-drug campaign, telling him he was going about it ‘the right way’. Reuters also reported that Duterte had been invited to the White House. Trump’s transition team declined to confirm either point.

Coconut trees destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan
Coconut trees destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan

Duterte has been called the ‘Trump of the East’, but by the Western media, not the people of the Philippines. I was in a barangay in West Samar when news of Trump’s election came through. Nobody in the small settlement, built by the aid agency Cafod and its partners for Haiyan survivors, had heard of Trump, though they were impressed that he had been a TV star. What the two men have in common is attitude: a brash, unrefined realism that appeals to some voters.

Duterte has called not only outgoing President Barack Obama but Pope Francis ‘sons of whores’, despite his claim that, in the aftermath of his falling out with the Vatican, God appeared to him in a dream to tell him that he should swear less. And it is this issue, not the bloody war on drugs, that will lose Duterte support among his people. Alongside Duterte’s high approval rating, the same survey found that a majority thought his brash swearing would harm the Philippines.

Some 6,000 people have been killed in anti-drug operations in the Philippines since Duterte came to power

‘I believe that the majority of Filipinos are embarrassed, as we are usually gracious to visitors and neighbours,’ said Padong. It is a contradiction not lost on the Filipino people that the ‘sons of whores’ their President has denounced provided millions of dollars of relief in the aftermath of one of the worst storms ever to make landfall. Government-run reconstruction, meanwhile, has largely failed. Only 25,000 homes or so have been built, a tenth of the target.

To win over Filipinos in the long run, Duterte must do more than condone the massacre of suspected criminals: he must ensure that none of his citizens are living under tarpaulins inscribed ‘A Gift from the American People’.

Liz Dodd is Home News Editor at The Tablet and a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent and Evening Standard. She searches out rare and exciting beers for her blog, It Comes In Pints?, and is shortly to cycle around the world.

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