2018 will be 'dangerous' for the Philippines

2017 was a challenging year for the Philippines, with the country facing increased political and security problems. Observers say 2018 will be even more difficult. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.

The year 2017 tested the leadership of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (main picture). Militants inspired by the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) extremist outfit laid siege to Marawi City in southern Philippines, thousands lost their lives in the war on drugs and Duterte's high approval ratings took a hit.

The irascible leader responded to the situation by floating the idea of amending the nation's constitution by establishing a "revolutionary government."

"Challenging" is how political analyst and former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government Tony Lavina described the Philippines' political landscape of the past year. "President Duterte governs like a mayor. There is no plan, no vision for long-term leadership. He relies on instinct and will act on triggers that will put his power in question," La Vina told DW.

Before becoming president, Duterte was mayor of Davao City, the biggest city in southern Philippines, for over 20 years.

For this reason, La Vina foresees dictatorship will be formally established through a declaration of a revolutionary government where the nation's constitution will be abolished and a new one will put in place to instill Duterte and his allies in power indefinitely.

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La Vina also cited how institutions like the Supreme Court were being undermined through an impeachment process of the chief justice. 

"A dictatorship never ends well. That's why I foresee 2018 as 'dangerous,'" said Vina.

Fragile security

Military historian and national security expert Jose Antonio Custodio attributes the unrest in the Philippines to the government's "scatterbrain" national security policy. "The situation was not this bad before the Duterte government. Now, you have a major Mindanao city destroyed and opportunists like the communists and China taking advantage of this very fluid situation," Custodio told DW.

The government's single-minded focus on the war on drugs led to the miscalculation of other imminent security threats, the expert noted. "That's why the military was blindsided by the Maute takeover of Marawi," said Custodio. In May, the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf, a militant group notorious for kidnappings and beheadings in the southern Philippines, consolidated forces and overran the city of Marawi.

The military, more accustomed to jungle warfare, found themselves in unfamiliar territory fighting a surprisingly well-organized enemy in urban terrain. It took the military five months to "liberate" the city. The siege indicated that the ripples of violent extremism had reached Southeast Asia. In an interview, terrorism expert Sidney Jones said, "Marawi in particular has become the new sexy destination for jihad."

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Analyst Custodio further warned that the Marawi crisis left the military in a precarious situation. "There are reports that the Maute is consolidating and that other cities in Mindanao are in danger of an attack."

"Another attack will be disastrous for the military that is still recovering from its losses. The total casualties and fatalities were equal to one brigade. The military does not have enough brigades to begin with," Custodio pointed out.

If the political situation deteriorates, then it could have a negative impact on the economy as well, he warned. "The private sector will be the glimmer of hope that can keep the economy afloat, but they can only do so much. If there is a constitutional crisis, that would affect the business environment," Custodio concluded.


An outsider

Rodrigo Duterte's rise in Philippine politics began in the spring of 2016. He was considered an outsider in the presidential election but he gradually gained popularity due to a radical election campaign that promised to free the Philippines from drugs and corruption.


Landslide victory

On May 9, 2016, Duterte was elected to the presidency with almost 40 percent of the total votes and a big lead over other candidates. As mayor of Davao, he had transformed the southern city from a mafia-run place into an economically prosperous area. However, human rights activists accuse him of using death squads and brutal force to achieve this goal.


A short-tempered president

Duterte is known for his sort temper. After coming to power, he threatened to break ties with the EU, the US and Australia. He also publicly insulted foreign leaders like Barack Obama because the former US president labeled Duterte's drug war as inhuman. Duterte also announced that his government would scale down dependence on the US and get closer to China and Russia.


A victory over China

In July 2016, the Philippines won a lawsuit against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that rejected Beijing's territorial claims on the South China Sea. China refused to accept the court's ruling. Manila nevertheless celebrated it as a victory but remained cautious in its approach toward China due to its economic interests with Beijing.


Drug killings

Leila de Lima, a senator and former director of the Philippine Human Rights Commission, has emerged as Duterte's most powerful opponent during his one year in power. She is leading a senate probe into extra-judicial killings in Duterte's war on drugs.


Honoring a 'dictator'

One of Duterte's most controversial decisions during his one year in power was to allow the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos' body to be buried in Manila. Marcos had been denied this honor due to massive human rights violations during his reign. Human rights activists and church representatives held demonstrations against Marcos' "hero's burial."


Fighting 'Islamic State'

In May, militant groups affiliated with the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) group took control of the southern city of Marawi. Duterte declared Martial Law in Mindanao province and his forces have been trying to recapture the city for weeks. More than 200 people have been killed in the fighting and thousands have fled the town.

Democracy in danger?

Political analyst Richard Heydarian agrees that the Marawi crisis directly tested the mettle of the presidency. "How could a ragtag IS-inspired group build tunnels and stockpile weapons and take over a city? The Marawi siege was a huge failure on the part of Duterte's promise to bring peace to the long restive south."

When it comes to the president's campaign against drugs, Heydarian sees the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos by police as the catalyst that shifted public support for Duterte. "There was huge groundswell of protest and even supporters changed their tone. The killing of Delos Santos resulted in a drop in Duterte's approval ratings," Heydarian told DW.

"Duterte has succeeded in making people believe that human rights are Western values and we have seen human rights and civil liberties pushed over the line."

In this context, Heydarian sees the Duterte administration's authoritarian style much like the dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s. "The opposition has no clear narrative and Duterte has presented himself as the only viable option. The Philippine democracy is definitely in a fragile place," Heydarian concluded.

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