For almost every Westerner, Rodrigo Duterte, who became president of the Philippines in 2016, came into focus when both The Washington Post and HBO’s Last Week Tonight host John Oliver dubbed him the “Trump of the East.” Duterte and Trump are anti-establishment, crude, and misogynistic populists, or so goes the narrative. The characterizations were certainly true enough to make the sobriquet stick.
But for Filipinos Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte is known as the hard-nosed, soft-hearted mayor of Davao. The same man who bought policemen groceries to prevent bribes does not hesitate to beat up drunk on-duty cops. To them, Rody is the Godfather, a law unto himself, champion of the people—the mayor who created safety and order amidst the region’s chaos.
Those blessed to live in societies governed by law and order decry “The Punisher” as another tyrant who rode a wave of populist appeal to the presidency. They argue his extralegal methods are beyond unorthodox; they are morally reprehensible. A deeper look at their revulsion suggests the moral condemnation is directed as much at his violation of natural rights as his disregard for institutional norms. Not only does he ignore due process, he kills innocent people, they insist.
The hasty judgment of most critics is aided by a combination of Western arrogance and ignorance. In a functional democratic system, citizens suffering injustice have multiple avenues of recourse. The assumption is justice, albeit limited justice, is readily available to them so it should also be available to people in places like the Philippines.
However, in societies with institutions hollowed out by corruption, governments fail their primary task of punishing the wrongdoer. Even the possibility of justice is remote. John Locke, in his Second Treatise, rightly notes in these situations the peoples’ only appeal is to Heaven.
For years, Filipino people have trusted the system, and, when the system failed, they appealed to heaven’s justice. Every election Filipinos flood voting booths for the next “anti-corruption” candidate, and then are inevitably disappointed. Last year, Filipinos elected the man they believed had the track record and tenacity to enact real change.
With Duterte, many felt heaven’s justice had come, wielding (symbolically and literally) the sword entrusted to government against evildoers. And despite international criticism, the Filipino people widely approve of the Duterte way. When offered the choice between vigilante justice and no justice at all, a downtrodden people will choose the former every time.
When Duterte was elected as mayor of Davao in 1987, the Mindanao region was plagued by roving bands of communist guerrillas, separatist Muslim factions, and an unresponsive, even corrupt police force. The citizens of Mindanao were caught in a turf war. Rody arrived on his Harley-Davidson, packing a .38 pistol, hell-bent on protecting his people.
After seven terms as mayor, Duterte turned a city with a bloated crime rate into the fifth-safest city in the world. In Davao, Duterte implemented the first 9-1-1 call center in the Philippines, and then expanded the 9-1-1 program to the rest of the Philippines two months after his presidential inauguration.
Controversially, the government of Davao gave tacit, if not tactical, support to the “Davao Death Squad,” a roving squad of vigilantes who killed 1,040 criminals and suspected drug dealers during a ten-year period. Duterte has been accused of involvement, but he, along with many other Filipino citizens, has only expressed approval without sanctioning.
At the beginning of his first term as mayor, Duterte drove into the separatist Muslim and communist camps on the outskirts of Davao, told them he understood their grievances and respected their commitment, yet warned them and the criminal world, “you can leave either vertically or horizontally.”
True to his word, in 2002, Time reported an incident when Duterte and his detail cut off kidnappers trying to flee Davao. The kidnappers started shooting, and Duterte along with his security team returned fire, killing the kidnappers.
Last May, ISIS-linked Maute militants captured Marawi, a city in west Mindanao, and began to devastate the city. As the militants began to spread, Duterte declared martial law in the region of Mindanao. The Philippine Army has largely contained the Maute fighters, but the battle for Marawi still continues.
Again, critics of Duterte have argued the implementation of martial law undermines the rule of law, but they do not consider whether the rule of law was even present in the first place. The Philippines is far from an anarchical land yet is not an oasis of law and order. The election of Duterte proved the people’s overwhelming discontent with the state and their vibrant commitment to democratic institutions.
The test of Duterte’s presidency is the measure of his commitment to those democratic institutions. If, in true peacemaker fashion, Duterte can “keep the end of peace foremost in mind as the chiefly desired object,” and endeavor, to the best of his ability, to protect the innocent, he just might succeed at establishing peace in the Philippines. Filipinos trust Duterte’s methods because they trust his intentions and see the establishment of peace and order; it’s time the West lay down the blinding, self-righteous idealism that produces only voyueristic, hypocritical coverage of developing nations.
Neither 400 years under occupation nor 20 years under a dictator presents the best model for governance. Since Ferdinand Marcos’ fall in 1986, Filipinos have sensed a democratic revolution nearing. The next few years will determine whether Duterte is that revolution or if heaven’s justice need wait another election cycle.
Joshua Cayetano is an intern for Providence. His family has been involved in Philippine politics for over 30 years, and he traveled to the Philippines in May 2016 to observe the campaigns and election. Originally from the Bay Area, California, he is a member of the inaugural class of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University, where he also studies political science and history. In the spring of 2017, Joshua received the State Department’s Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship to study in Amman, Jordan. His interests include international relations, the application of faith in the public square, and advocacy for “the least of these.”
Photo Credit: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while speaking following a wreath-laying ceremony at Monument of National Heroes and Martyrs (via Bullit Marquez/AP and US News)