Manuel Quezon III is a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and the host of the political affairs show “The Explainer” on the ABS-CBN TV news channel.
This past weekend, large crowds gathered in Manila and other parts of the Philippines, ostensibly to mark the 31st anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution that ousted president Ferdinand Marcos. For once, however, the country’s turbulent present succeeded in overshadowing its past.
It could hardly be otherwise, considering that the commemorations were taking place against the backdrop of current President Rodrigo Duterte’s continuing war on drugs and the related arrest of his leading critic. Duterte and his entourage were clearly aiming to use the weekend’s events to energize their supporters and put their critics on the defensive. But things didn’t quite turn out the way they had planned.
The backdrop of the weekend’s events couldn’t have been more dramatic. On Feb. 23, just as the country was gearing up to commemorate the 1986 revolution, a court issued an order for the arrest of Sen. Leila de Lima on drug charges filed by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II. The day before, Amnesty International had issued a statement describing the expected arrest as politically motivated. Amnesty noted, among other things, that the Duterte administration decided to prosecute de Lima for her alleged past crimes only after she had openly criticized the president’s anti-drug campaign.
Few in Manila take the charges at face value. De Lima and Duterte have a lot of history. The bad blood between the two of them dates to her 2008-2010 stint as head of the Commission on Human Rights, a position that allowed her to investigate allegations of widespread human rights violations committed in the southern city of Davao when Duterte was serving as its mayor. It was there that the future president first earned a national reputation by staging a ferocious crackdown on drug dealers and other criminals that flouted legal procedures.
A 2007 United Nations investigation into the allegations ultimately bogged down thanks to determined resistance from Davao officials. To Duterte’s fury, however, de Lima decided to look into the issue when she assumed the chairmanship of the commission. She identified 206 death squad killings between 2005 and 2009. Her successor completed the report she began and asked the National Bureau of Investigation (the Philippine equivalent of the FBI) to investigate further.
In 2015, de Lima resigned from the cabinet to run for the Senate in a national campaign that was dominated by Duterte’s presidential bid. A collision between the two was inevitable. Upon assuming office in June 2016, Duterte consistently cursed, mocked and attempted to shame de Lima (including through references to an alleged sex video) while his allies in the House of Representatives held hearings on her conduct. By December, the House had filed an ethics complaint against her in the Senate, preparing the way for her arrest — just in time for the anniversary of the People Power Revolution.
One might have expected the anti-Duterte camp to rise to the occasion, since de Lima’s predicament offers a vivid case study of the president’s campaign to undermine the country’s democratic institutions. On Feb. 25, a loose coalition of civil society groups, educators, millennials and activists staged a rally denouncing the recent political rehabilitation of the Marcoses. Some demanded the revival of peace talks with communist guerrillas. Others proclaimed their opposition to Duterte’s alarming war on drugs, which has claimed 7,000 lives (and counting). Still others expressed their indignation over the president’s recent proposals to revive the death penalty and to lower the age of criminal accountability to a mere 9 years.
And yes, some denounced the fate of de Lima. Yet the senator’s belated admission of an affair with one of her security personnel and even her emotional demeanor during news conferences have taken a toll on her personal acceptability in a still-conservative society.
Attendance at the rally was lower than the last anti-Duterte gathering in November 2016, when emotions were still riding high over the controversial reburial (complete with state funeral) of the late dictator Marcos in the country’s national cemetery. Back then, about 15,000 showed up to protest. On Saturday, only about 6,000 did — roughly the same number as those who showed up to support the president in his home town of Davao.
One might have expected the government to do everything it could to capitalize on the opposition’s weakness — and it did its best. Duterte’s office vowed to use its own commemorative events to show that the president still enjoys widespread support. The Department of the Interior sent a memorandum to all governors, mayors and village officials that blandly stated, “Your constituents who are willing to participate in the events may be organized for the purpose.”
The intent was clear: The administration was expecting local officials to do everything to organize a huge turnout. Presidential adviser Jose Alejandrino had already issued social media statements urging Duterte supporters to gather in public places around the country on Feb. 25 to demand “revolutionary powers” for the president. The government television station confidently tweeted that 1.5 million people were expected to turn up in Manila’s Rizal Park alone.
Yet despite the organizers’ best efforts — including the use of ambulances to ferry people to the site — the police settled on an estimated attendance of 210,000. (A local tech enthusiast who took a photo of the rally with a drone concluded that the number was closer to 20,000.) Big, to be sure, but not even close to the gigantic turnout that had been predicted. And the nationwide gathering in public plazas to petition for a revolutionary government doesn’t seem to have materialized at all.
In fact, despite the government’s considerable resources and Duterte’s still buoyant approval ratings (83 percent, according to the most recent poll from December), there is a palpable sense in Manila that the political momentum is no longer entirely on the president’s side. For even as de Lima was preparing to face her persecutors, the convoluted tale of the Davao death squads took an extraordinary twist.
Back in September 2016, a self-confessed hit man named Edgardo Matobato had come forward to testify before the Senate Justice Committee, headed by de Lima. He testified that between 1993 and 2014, he participated in at least 12 attacks and murders in which then-Mayor Duterte was implicated. His testimony, however, was hotly disputed by a police officer named Arthur Lascanas. Senatorial allies of the president circled the wagons, evicted de Lima from her committee chairmanship and denounced Matobato as a fraud.
But on Feb. 20, Duterte’s past came back to haunt him yet again, when Lascanas returned to the Senate to recant his previous testimony, this time detailing the hit list and methods of the death squad allegedly acting on direct instructions from Duterte. The president’s senatorial allies were frankly astounded by this turn of events. The administration’s decision to jail de Lima was clearly aimed, in part, at pushing the Lascanas revelations out of the headlines.
Yet will that be enough in the long run? On Feb. 27, the president’s allies moved against senators who attended he anti-government rally by stripping them of their committee chairmanships. Duterte is clearly aiming for greater control of future proceedings — not least so that he can manage the fallout from the Lascanas case. Nonetheless, one key lawmaker, former police general Panfilo Lacson, announced that his committee will allow Lascanas to testify anyway on March 7.
Despite his best efforts, Duterte suddenly finds himself facing a sobering reality. The critics aren’t going away, and his supporters aren’t as easily mobilized as he had hoped. And that, for any government facing allegations of state-sanctioned killings, is a problem.