A step toward populist dictatorship
CANBERRA—President Duterte is pushing Sen. Leila de Lima to resign in an effort to disable her criticism of his administration’s bloody war on illegal drugs, as the body count of the crackdown by death squads allegedly directed by the government mounted to a scale that has triggered international concern.
Speaking after a visit to a police officer who was shot by a suspected drug pusher in Samar, the President said that if he were De Lima, “I’ll hang myself.” He said “the innermost of your core as a female is being serialized every day,” indeed by his own accusations that she was “immoral” and an “adulterer.” Assuming the role as a morality policeman, he directed these words to the senator: “You resign. You have lost face with women. Follow me, I will show you how it is to be a woman of the world.”
Earlier, the President accused De Lima of taking money from drug lords and allowing the drug trade to flourish in the New Bilibid Prisons during her tenure as justice secretary in the previous administration. He also accused her of having an affair with her driver, who, he said, was the collector of the drug money.
Mr. Duterte aired the call for De Lima’s resignation days after she started a Senate inquiry into the extrajudicial killings that have accompanied the war on drugs. She has refused to be stampeded into resigning from the Senate, saying it would mean admitting to something she did not do. She said that after much reflection, “resignation at this point will be an admission of guilt and a sign of weakness, and I’m neither weak nor guilty.”
De Lima suggested that the pressure on her was either a trap or an attempt to deprive her of a platform to defend herself or fight against abuse of power by a president who appears not to have spared any weapon, fair or foul, to crush her politically. Her removal from the Senate would render her vulnerable to presidential vindictiveness and retaliation.
Mr. Duterte has to be reminded that De Lima was elected to the Senate by a nationwide vote, with a mandate to serve as a check on vast presidential powers. She was not appointed to the Senate by the President. Senators, like the President and unlike members of the House of Representatives, are elected by a national constituency. Thus, the resignation of a senator at the behest of the President is by implication an attack on the independence of the Senate vis-a-vis the presidency.
In standing for her prerogatives as a senator, De Lima assailed the fairness of Mr. Duterte’s call for her resignation, pointing out that he had already judged her as guilty. She also expressed doubt about the fairness of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who will lead the House’s planned inquiry into the drug trade at the New Bilibid Prisons and her alleged involvement in it. She said she would proceed with the Senate inquiry into the extrajudicial killings but would not submit to a “kangaroo court” in the House where the administration holds a supermajority.
“I’m already judged guilty, I’m finished as far as the President is concerned. That’s why he’s asking me to resign. And then I go and face the House inquiry? I would have lost all respect then,” she said.
How far the administration will go in pursuing the President’s “character assassination” of De Lima and whether it will file criminal charges against her remain a matter of conjecture. In his so-called “drug matrix” showing De Lima’s alleged involvement in the drug operations in the national penitentiary, Mr. Duterte named six persons linked to the racket but did not cite evidence.
De Lima said that she would respond to the allegations at the proper forum and that she would continue to fulfill her duties in the Senate. She called for an end to “threats and naming and shaming.” She said, “Let’s go back to civility,” and added: “I am not the enemy here. Stop portraying me as one.”
Other lawmakers have echoed her appeal. They called for “respect and civility in public discourse,” adding that “our people deserve facts, not innuendo.”
The aggressive rhetoric of the President in pursuing his violent approach to the trade in illegal drugs has raised questions: Who is the enemy, the drug lords or De Lima? Why has he singled out De Lima in his war on drugs? Why has the number of extrajudicial killings increased in the months after he took office?
The fundamental issue in this war against drug syndicates is not the rising number of corpses. It is how much damage this killing-fields strategy has inflicted on the rule of law and on justice.
In the inordinate focus on De Lima, the point has been underlined that the conflict between her and the administration is characterized by a gross imbalance: the deployment by the state’s coercive powers to crush its critics. This is a dangerous development toward the establishment of a populist dictatorship.
Amando Doronila was a regular columnist of the Inquirer from 1994 to May 2016.
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