We all remember when Donald Trump called for Hillary Clinton to be drug-tested before the final presidential debate. But on the other side of the world, drugs have been a headline item for another bombastic, populist leader with a reputation for saying the unsayable: President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
Duterte’s campaign pledge to kill 100,000 criminals in his first six months as president and dump so many bodies in Manila Bay that the “fish will grow fat” sounds like a page straight from the Trump playbook. But unlike Trump (whose chances of victory have dwindled to just 13.8 percent according to Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight), Duterte won and is now making good on his promise. Since he was sworn in on July 1st, his ruthless War on Drugs has claimed over 3,800 victims, killed either in police operations or by vigilantes inspired by the president’s exhortation to “kill drug dealers”. Duterte’s response to the global outcry at this tragedy has been to tell President Obama to “go to hell”.
Today, Filipino Senator Leila de Lima calls for an investigation into Duterte’s drug war from the International Criminal Court, calling the killings “a crime against humanity”. De Lima says she fears for her life after her address and phone number were made public, resulting in thousands of death threats and hate mail for daring to oppose the president’s plan. A smear campaign has been launched against de Lima, accusing her of corruption and of having an affair with her driver, while her opponents in the Senate even tried to play what they allege is a sex tape featuring her in a committee hearing (the authenticity of the tape has not been verified). It’s a darker, more disturbing mirror of Donald Trump’s recent backlash against former Miss Universe Alicia Machada, with some key differences: Trump isn’t a president, de Lima is an elected representative not a beauty queen, and the senator may be risking her life by attempting to hold her authoritarian nemesis to account.
While de Lima’s battle from within the Philippines may be a lonely one, other countries are starting to realise Duterte is a problem they cannot afford to ignore. Duterte drew particular attention last week when he announced “a separation from the US” (a longstanding ally of the Philippines) at an economic forum in China, declaring “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way.” America’s most senior diplomat for Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, has said Duterte’s comments have caused “consternation” – an understatement, given the Philippines has traditionally been one of the most pro-US countries in the world.
Donald Trump has seized on Duterte’s antagonism as yet another example of how President Obama has caused America to be hated by the rest of the world, saying at a rally on Friday: “The world hates our president. The world hates us. You saw what happened with the Philippines after years and years and years; they’re now looking to Russia and China, because they don’t feel good about the weak America.” Trump may think he has found a kindred spirit in Duterte, but don’t be fooled. In a year’s time, when Trump will hopefully be off launching Trump TV after being relegated to no more than an electoral footnote, Duterte will still have over four years left of his presidential term. He’s killing drug dealers and threatening senators now. Who knows what’s next.