Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte marked his first one hundred days at the helm earlier this month with sky-high approval ratings, the likes of which are unprecedented in Philippine history. Since his election, Duterte has become one of the world’s most talked about leaders, thanks to his aggressive turn against the US, his penchant for colourful language, and, at home, the ever-increasing death toll from his war on drugs.
These controversies have overshadowed the president’s on-going feud with long-time foe, Senator Leila de Lima. Duterte acolytes in the government and media have waged a relentless campaign against the senator. It started with attacks on professional capacity before descending into tabloid-fodder slander and it's likely to become a long-term feature of Duterte’s presidency.
While the two have never been friends, Duterte and de Lima’s relations have hit new lows in recent months with de Lima exceptionally vocal in her outrage regarding the president’s mounting death toll from his war on drugs. De Lima entered the Philippine senate in June’s elections after serving as secretary of justice under president Benigno Aquino III from 2010 to 2015. Prior to that, she led the country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
The two began butting heads in Davao City when, in her CHR role, de Lima took on then-mayor Duterte and the infamous 'Davao Death Squads'. The vigilante killings – a hallmark of Duterte's leadership – ostensibly targeted drug and child sex offenders. The number of deaths has increased dramatically from about 300 in the period between the late 1990s and 2005, to 700 between 2005 to 2008. Duterte has since said that figure is severely underestimated and he killed 1700, not 700.
De Lima’s rebuking of the Duterte administration became a defining moment in her human rights and justice career, catapulting her into the national spotlight and making her a target for diehard Duterte fans.
'We saw there was really a threat to her life and to her family but she would not make it public. She did not fold. She went ahead,' Maria Victoria Cardona, then with the CHR, told Rappler.
When de Lima entered the senate and Duterte became president her crusade escalated. In August she launched a senate inquiry into vigilante death squads, which featured witnesses testifying to the involvement of Duterte. In a particularly explosive session in mid-September, self-confessed killer Edgar Matobato claimed he was a former member of a Davao City Death Squad and had been directed by then-mayor Duterte personally to 'kill the Muslims in the mosque' following the 1993 bombing of the Davao Cathedral.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a retired police officer, and Senator Manny Pacquiao, a member of ruling party PDP-Laban alongside Duterte, quickly launched a campaign against both the witness and de Lima. Lacson, along with other senators, accused de Lima of concealing evidence that showed Matobato had been involved in a kidnap-for-ransom plot. Pacquiao then moved for the hearing to be abandoned but was overruled. Instead, de Lima was dumped as chair.
She quickly became the target of a smear campaign, which included death threats, allegations she was involved in the drug trade, and a bizarre plan to screen a sex tape allegedly featuring the senator that was shut down by a non-partisan resolution signed by other women senators.
This week, de Lima has turned to the international community, banking on increasing global coverage and condemnation of Duterte’s administration. The International Criminal Court 'should start to think about investigating already or doing an inquiry into the killings as crimes against humanity', she said on Monday, as reported by the Guardian.
While it’s unlikely Duterte, who is unabashedly uninterested in what the international community has to say about his leadership, will cower to the Hague, this feud is an important one. Polling and coverage both show overwhelming support for Duterte’s stance on crime but there is sizable dissent among human rights activists. The attacks on de Lima, both directly through Duterte and other government officials and indirectly through their supporters, demonstrate the frightening lengths the president will go to in order to stifle opposition and settle old scores. Earlier this month, Duterte said he was 'tempted' to declare martial law, echoing an earlier threat. These are ominous signs so early on in his six-year term.
Photo: Getty Images/Pacific Press