MANILA — Justin Quirino is a 28-year-old radio disc jockey and events host who is active in Manila’s hip cultural scene. He abhors violence and says more of his country’s wealth and opportunities should flow to the poor. And he considers himself a supporter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
“He’s far from perfect,” Quirino said, sitting in a Manila Starbucks. “But I think he’s what the country needs right now.”
Quirino holds a business degree and speaks perfect English, so he knows that recent international coverage of the Philippines has focused on the thousands killed in the war on drugs that Duterte launched after taking office last year.
“It really hits a nerve when I hear about those deaths. It’s painful. But I think that violence of that kind is unfortunately inevitable when there’s a struggle for power, especially when drug gangs are involved,” he said. “Around this country, you’ll find a blatant disregard of many of our laws, and there’s little to no accountability. We have to change that.”
Despite international allegations of mass extrajudicial executions and an outcry against the recent imprisonment of a political rival, polls indicate that Duterte still has the majority of the country behind him. That support can often be found in unexpected places, from the well-heeled elite circles that the unapologetically populist president attacks so aggressively to poor neighborhoods experiencing violence firsthand.
“A lot of support for Duterte is just as much about rejecting what came before him as it is about the man and the policies,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila.
Two particularly important Duterte voting blocs, he said, were people from the large southern island of Mindanao, which had never produced a prominent national politician, and Filipinos working abroad, many of whom worry that their children back home could get mixed up with drugs or gangs.
“His victory was won out of frustrations, not only with the last president but with the last 30 years of politics,” Casiple said.
Some supporters blame the killings on drug gangs themselves rather than the police. Others accuse the elite-controlled mainstream media and the political opposition of exaggerating the violence so they can regain power from Duterte, who hails from outside the traditional Manila circles that ran the country for decades. Some frown and say they don’t know much about the killings, while others are active in the online pro-Duterte groups that work to rebut accusations against the president.
“They aren’t really EJKs,” said Janina Boncales, a 25-year-old food attendant in the city of Cebu, using an abbreviation for extrajudicial killings. “It’s the narcos who are killing their own people,” she said. She added that she believes that killings also took place under the previous administration of Benigno Aquino but that mainstream media here did not report them.
Because of the large number of Filipinos who live abroad, social-media campaigns have been essential to building and maintaining Duterte’s support, experts say.
On Facebook, Boncales recently shared an English-language YouTube video titled “Dear International Community: What makes Leila de Lima special?” — a defense of the February arrest of the senator and Duterte critic on charges that she was involved with the drug trade. A recent European Union resolution expressed concern that the charges against de Lima “are almost entirely fabricated.”
The video was uploaded by Sass Rogando Sasot, a Filipina in graduate school in the Netherlands who has become a leading pro-Duterte voice online. Insisting on an email interview on the grounds that she suspected international media might twist her words, she said she adheres to the liberal values of equality and freedom and came around to supporting Duterte last year because of his leadership and crisis-management skills. She also contends that the Philippines will benefit from his less “antagonistic” approach to China.
“Duterte is that kind of leader who doesn’t really give a s--- about what other people think about him,” she said. “My support for him is not about defending him per se but about explaining and making people understand his actions, policies and decisions.”
A transgender woman and longtime activist in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, she rejects assertions that Duterte is anti-LGBT.
As long ago as 2001, in Mindanao’s Davao City, she recalled, she was surprised to see how advanced local LGBT organizations were, and she credits Duterte’s longtime leadership there. “That’s why when Duterte was painted as an anti-LGBT candidate, I was really vocal about refuting that.”
Duterte has appointed several LGBT people to government positions, most notably Aiza Seguerra, who chairs the National Youth Commission. In Davao City, Duterte spearheaded passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance in 2012, when he was serving as vice mayor.
Off the record, some other Duterte supporters might even acknowledge taking drugs from time to time. Maybe a puff of marijuana with friends or ecstasy at an international dance-music show. But not the methamphetamine product known here as shabu.
“Shabu is like the cancer of our society,” said Nick, who asked that his last name not be used, because his work brings him in contact with police and drug dealers, both of whom he fears. His brother is in jail for a drug-related crime, and associates have disappeared. He worries they have been killed or have fled to avoid being hunted down. He supports Duterte.
“To be honest, I like what’s happening right now,” he said. “We feel safer.”
International analysts note that meth use here is probably not much greater than in countries such as Australia or the United States. But studies have shown that historically, when faith in public institutions is lacking, extrajudicial violence can come to be seen as a solution.
“We have all the ingredients usually required to garner support for populism or extreme measures,” said Carlos H. Conde, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in the Philippines. “There are decades of political dysfunction going back to the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. We have corruption at every level, we have disenchantment with our institutions, poverty is widespread, and crime is rampant. It’s almost a textbook case.”
The organization says the recent spike in violence is clearly linked to Duterte’s policies and rhetoric, and it is requesting a full investigation by the United Nations.
Conde added, however, that “in countries where death squads or extrajudicial killings have been used to combat drug gangs, such as in Latin America, we know that it’s not effective in the long term.”
At a karaoke bar on a run-down street in the Manila neighborhood of Pasay, where a number of killings have taken place in recent months, Richie Macalisang said he disagreed.
“Criminals are using human rights groups as a shield,” said the 39-year-old sailor, who was drinking and singing, waiting for his ship to leave soon for the United States, and wearing a red, white and blue bracelet with Duterte’s name on it. “They were given fair warning, and if they want to avoid violence, they can just turn themselves in.”