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Philippine VP to Contest Duterte’s Deadly Anti-Drug Campaign

  • Ralph Jennings

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech at the start of a state dinner hosted by Singapore's President Tony Tan at the Istana in Singapore, Dec. 15, 2016.

The stormy resignation of the Philippine vice president from her country’s Cabinet will allow her to mount more opposition to the deadly, internationally controversial anti-drug campaign of President Rodrigo Duterte, though her voice is not expected to change policy.

Vice President Leni Robredo quit the Cabinet post of housing secretary this month after Duterte asked her to stop attending meetings, according to reports and photos of a text message in local media. She has been critical of Duterte’s campaign against drugs, which her office estimates has killed 5,000 people.

Duterte told a business forum Monday he had killed people himself as mayor of Davao, the country’s second-largest city, which he ran for 22 years before becoming president.

Speaking tour

Robredo will probably travel around the Southeast Asian archipelago to speak out, said Eduardo Araral, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. But Duterte remains popular for his decisive approach to a once-festering crime problem.

“She goes around the country to rally people in the villages and there might be voices who egg her on to rally the opposition,” Araral said. He added, “the president still has the bully pulpit when it comes to agenda setting. He is on the top of his game.”

Filipinos elect presidents and vice presidents separately for purposes of checks and balances. Duterte won the presidency in May with the PDP Laban, a party founded in 1982 to advocate nationalism and federalism. The vice president ran that month with the 70-year-old centrist Liberal Party.

Robredo's focus

The 52-year-old lawyer and social activist will refocus her energy on a unit of the vice president’s office that promotes education, rural development, women’s rights and poverty relief around the country. She will be a “unifying voice of the opposition,” her spokesperson Georgina Hernandez said.

“In part she has been quite vocal against extrajudicial killings, against lowering of the age of criminality as well as bringing back of the death penalty,” Hernandez said. “Poor families” are victims of the killings, she said.

“Right now aside from being vocal about it, she is also in constant communication with the local families (of people killed) to see what their needs might be, but nothing concrete has been settled at the moment, except that she is committed to see this through until it is put to a stop,” the spokesperson said.

Some estimates place the death toll closer to 6,000, including suspected drug dealers gunned down vigilante style.

Duterte has said he would ask the Philippine Congress to reinstate the death penalty, which was scrapped in 2006. Lawmakers have proposed reducing the legal age of criminality from 15 to as young as 9.

Support not likely

Robredo’s opposition to the use of extrajudicial killings is expected for now neither to sway the anti-drug campaign nor other Duterte policies. People in Philippine cities say they feel safer since Duterte took office and rid methamphetamine dealers from street corners. A Pulse Asia poll gave him an 86 percent approval rating in October.

According to Philippine National Police figures, reported crimes grew from 217,812 in 2012 to 1.16 million in 2014, with another upswing in the first half of last year.

The suspected extrajudicial killings have generated international attention, including criticism from the European Union, United States and Catholic Church leaders over perceived human rights violations.

The campaign gives police too much power for the comfort of some Filipinos, as well.

If Duterte goes too far, the vice president will suddenly earn a stronger following, said Rhona Canoy, president of the International School Cagayan de Oro and part of a local political family.

“Her voice would probably be louder if there is a threat,” Canoy said. “If this becomes a real and like a legal issue of declaration of martial law, that’s when Robredo would get massive support. The loudness of the people who don’t (like) martial law, they would stand behind her, I think.”

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