Atlanta—Researchers at three U.S. universities have found new evidence that the conduct of the Philippines’ violent “War on Drugs” has been driven primarily by local political machinations rather than top-down pressure from Manila.
A recent study by political scientists at the University of California San Diego, Emory University, and Florida State University found that in places where mayors were from small or local political parties, the drug war was implemented much more aggressively, resulting in approximately 60 percent more drug-related police incidents and 40 percent more deaths at the hands of the Philippine National Police. These “outsider” mayors, who were locked out of many financial patronage schemes cornered by political insiders, sought to signal their loyalty and win favor from the Duterte regime.
To validate their findings, which are set to be published in the prestigious Journal of Politics, researchers Nico Ravanilla, Renard Sexton and Dotan Haim analyzed more than 1 million internal incident reports collected by the PNP, thousands of accounts of fatal incidents collected by the organization ACLED and thousands of public procurement records from the Philippine government.
Nico Ravanilla, a professor at UC San Diego and a Philippine native, explained that “when Duterte came to power, he was met with a substantial pushback from ‘establishment’ political networks controlled by lifelong politicians. These networks, associated with the outgoing Liberal Party, allowed insider mayors to maintain privileged access to public funds.” In fact, from 2016 to 2019 ‘insider’ mayors received nearly twice as much in public procurement funds than outsiders.
“Poorly connected mayors saw Duterte’s drug war as a once-in-lifetime opportunity to vault their way into a major political network,” said Renard Sexton, from Emory University. “They knew that with business as usual they would be marginalized from pork distribution and may struggle for re-election.”
In previous election cycles, mayors outside of the main political networks were 20 to 30 percent less likely to be re-elected. However, in 2019 outsider mayors that allied themselves with Duterte via the drug war achieved significantly higher re-election than former insiders.
“Our study shows how populist leaders can circumvent existing political structures, including established parties, to enact their agenda through local allies,” said Florida State professor Dotan Haim.
“This pattern is similar to how politicians like Donald Trump elevate previously marginalized local allies to generate their own client list networks.”