Politics

Duterte, so far

Assessing the Duterte administration and the Disruptor-in-Chief.
ILLUSTRATOR Warren Espejo
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Now that we are formally one hundred days into the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, it has become apparent that he has been taking on a new role: Disruptor-in-Chief (thanks to Ms. Shawn Yao for pointing this out). Frankly, our status quo did need disruption and, sifting through some of the political noise, some members of his cabinet have been able to balance continuity with disruptive interventions. These are positives.

DUTERTE'S ECONOMICS

Comprehensive tax reform, streamlining of permitting and a reduction of red tape, a renewed focus on agriculture development, maintaining the PPP pipeline while promising to enhance spending, all while maintaining long term macroeconomic policy continuity are examples of necessary disruptive interventions coupled with continuity. Economically, our fundamentals are still positive and the likelihood is, unless something drastic occurs, we will still be able to chart a high growth trajectory through the political noise.

Now that we are formally one hundred days into the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, it has become apparent that he has been taking on a new role: Disruptor-in-Chief.

President Duterte’s focus on resolving internal disputes again, theoretically, are positive disruptions. He has continued the dialogue with the MILF carried over from the previous administration, while working to fully incorporate other groups like the MNLF. The steps he has taken to try and bring the long-running hostilities with the Communist Party of the Philippines are theoretically a positive as well. It remains to be seen what comes of the discussions with the CPP-NDFP (National Democratic Front of the Philippines) and what type of agreement is hammered out, but bringing them to the table (in a vacuum) are important first steps in hopefully resolving the hostilities. Of course, at the end of the day, it comes down to compromise, addressing issues of justice and accountability, and ensuring the integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.

In addressing the issue of the Abu Sayyaf and potential incursion of ISIS onto our shores, President Duterte has expressed a policy of no negotiation and no quarter. Arguably, this is the right course, but take a look and see how it does not take much to imagine this could be nationally disruptive (i.e. an increase in terrorist actions) moving forward.

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The infusion of leftists into the Cabinet is, as well, an intriguing development that hopefully will pay dividends in areas like social welfare and anti-poverty efforts.

Economically, our fundamentals are still positive and the likelihood is, unless something drastic occurs, we will still be able to chart a high growth trajectory through the political noise.

But, on two fronts the disruptions may be far more negative than anticipated. The DENR’s crackdown on mining, and a stated desire to end mining if possible, has the potential to not only cause domestic problems, but international problems as well. We are already seeing this in the nickel industry. The proposed blanket moratorium on land conversion for two years by the Department of Agrarian Reform has the potentially to be even more disruptive broadly and economically. Wholesale stopping that process will negatively impact a wide-range of vital economic activities, from infrastructure development, manufacturing (and as a result foreign direct investment and job generation), to tourism developments, addressing the housing backlog (of around five million homes, which could balloon to seven million if the moratorium is implemented), to addressing our energy production and distribution issues. That is disruption that can easily impact the fundamentals of the country; especially when those fundamentals are predicated on strong infrastructure growth and development, as well as expansion in our manufacturing sector. It does not take pure imagination to take a look and see what could be.

* * *

THE SINGULAR FOCUS ON THE WAR ON DRUGS

The war on drugs is theoretically a positive disruption. The insidiousness of drug networks, which have taken on a quasi-political character, needs to be addressed. While, at the same time, long-term interventions to address demand must be put in place. Arguably, this requires integrating anti-poverty initiatives, enhanced health and values education, job creation and skills development programs, housing and urban development initiatives, while upgrading our police, investigative, and judicial structures to truly address the drug and criminality menace.

This continuing dismissal (tied up with the war on drugs) of fundamental human rights, enshrined in our Constitution, is a disruption of the very civil and social values we are collectively supposed to hold dear.

But, so far the execution so far has left much to be desired, something government has admitted. When tens of thousands are being packed in jails like sardines. When hundreds of thousands are surrendering with no plan on how to handle them in place. When there are thousands of bodies on the streets in police and non-state actions, we should ask questions. Even if those questions concerning deaths during police actions lead to the conclusion that they were necessary or above board, we still need to ask. That is part of accounting for the awesome powers citizens give to the state. For those non-state deaths, they must be investigated, both by the police and independent bodies (which is part of the law) to bring closure to the deaths and find out what is truly driving them.

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The singular focus of President Duterte on the issues of drugs and criminality has caused disruption elsewhere.

Further, this continuing dismissal (tied up with the war on drugs) of fundamental human rights, enshrined in our Constitution, is a disruption of the very civil and social values we are collectively supposed to hold dear. Outside of police and military actions to ‘dismantle’ drug networks on a low level, the issue of dealing with, tens of thousands arrested, hundreds of thousands of surrenderees, while handling the rehabilitation a million addicts (or so) humanely has barely even been addressed. Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo has floated the idea of creating island-based compounds where millions will be remanded. Right now camps are being built concentrated in military zones, ostensibly to ‘rehabilitate’ addicts. It does not need a stretch of the imagination to see how disruptive socially these plans may be; we just need to look at examples of such camps and ghettoes being established in the past.

The singular focus of President Duterte on the issues of drugs and criminality has caused disruption elsewhere. Currently, Congress is embroiled in controversial hearings focused on the drug trade and extrajudicial killings, but it is probably more apt to call them referendums on Senator Leila de Lima. Inter-house collegiality has been the victim. But further, the level of misogyny displaced has been an attack on #everywoman; a disruption of our sense of equality and women empowerment that Filipinos are supposed to be renowned for globally.

* * *

DUTERTE'S FOREIGN POLICY

There is an old adage that domestic policy informs foreign policy, and that is no clearer than with President Duterte. His vehement anti-West (United States, President Barack Obama, European Union, the United Nations primarily) statements are driven by his sensitivity to criticisms of his policies concerning the war on drugs. Further, his recent tirades against President Obama and the United States are informed by his perception that they will not support his war on drugs, through either aid or giving access to military hardware and weapons. Despite statements by National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana pointing out the aid and assistance we have received from the United States, President Duterte (and now Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay in a personal statement on Facebook) are hewing to a course of either disengaging from the relationship with the United States (arguing, we have been failed by them), or substantially downgrading it.

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His vehement anti-West (United States, President Barack Obama, European Union, the United Nations primarily) statements are driven by his sensitivity to criticisms of his policies concerning the war on drugs. Further, his recent tirades against President Obama and the United States are informed by his perception that they will not support his war on drugs, through either aid or giving access to military hardware and weapons.

Both President Duterte and Secretary Yasay have explicitly referred to Filipinos as "little brown brothers" to America. A pointed callback to our colonial past, but one that seems strangely out of step with modernity, geared towards either a drastic shift in our treaty relationship with the US, or placating other interests by antagonizing America. Coupled with an apparent pivot towards nations (China and Russia) President Duterte perceives as friendlier, this has the potential to completely disrupt alliances (trade, maritime, and military) throughout the region. The Philippine pivot, driven by domestic interests, may cause a restructuring of the balance of power in Asia.

Asserting our inherent dignity as a free people does not necessarily require the steps that have been taken; it does not demand denigrating others.

There is little doubt that an independent nation should not be ‘married’ to one or a handful of allies, the world today requires positive and strengthening bilateral and multilateral ties with many nations, driven predominantly by national and shared interest with others. That can be done though, without antagonizing or unraveling long-standing friendly relationships.

Asserting our inherent dignity as a free people does not necessarily require the steps that have been taken; it does not demand denigrating others. It just takes acting like a free and independent people, able to chart their own independent path, unburdened by the past, but cognizant of it. 

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THE PRESIDENT'S LANGUAGE

Essentially, one of the continuing threads in statements from the Palace and other alter egos is not to take President Duterte at his word, only by his intent (whatever that may be). Spokesperson Abella believes that if you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Namely, that the Philippines is well on its way to achieving change. He exhorts us to use our imagination to truly understand the meaning and intent behind the words of President Duterte. Others, like Peter Wallace, have done much the same in recent days.

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This in and of itself has become one of the chief sources of disruption today: The discontinuity between statement, broadly accepted interpretation, and subsequent spin or explanation.

Interestingly, this usually follows on the heels of members of the administration and their allies taking the local and foreign media to task for misunderstanding, de-contextualizing, or plain misinterpreting the President’s statements. This in and of itself has become one of the chief sources of disruption today: The discontinuity between statement, broadly accepted interpretation, and subsequent spin or explanation.

Condemning interpretations of vague or legitimately controversial statements then imploring media and people at large to creatively imagine the "intent" behind the words, is disingenuous. Communications has not been the strong point of the administration in the first hundred days, no matter how they try to spin it or implore us to imagine it otherwise.

Clarity, especially from a head of state, is required to ensure that all clearly understand the direction of a country. Condemning interpretations of vague or legitimately controversial statements then imploring media and people at large to creatively imagine the "intent" behind the words, is disingenuous. Communications has not been the strong point of the administration in the first hundred days, no matter how they try to spin it or implore us to imagine it otherwise.

The fact is, though, as the head of state, we are traveling in the world of his creation. This is both the awesome power and the inherent danger of the presidency: Statements are guidance, positions are policy, and the President has the ability to enact these through the Executive department. For presidents, all they have to do is simply look around and view it, anything they want to do—if they want to change the [our] world—there’s nothing to it. From a certain perspective, especially that of institutions and stability from the top, this is why so many locally and abroad hope that President Duterte takes a more tactful approach to his speeches.

His speech-making has resulted in a short-term disruption in the positive light we have been held in recently globally. This could still be chalked up to growing pains, but the more this continues, the more noise builds up to the point where it could derail our fundamentals, the more difficult it becomes to imagine traveling in the world of that creation.

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* * *

CHANGE AS DISRUPTION

That President Duterte has tackled issues he perceives as fundamental to addressing our long-term viability during his first 100 days at once is an understatement. We are feeling that disruption now.

There is a warning note, though, that we should heed. As Rahm Emanuel noted, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Crisis, or an imagined crisis driven by disruption, provides opportunities for those in power, if they so wish to use it. Agenda should always be a concern by those who wield the vast powers of government, especially when we find ourselves either in crisis, or being pushed towards one. Disruption with specific goals geared towards national and collective good is what we need; disruption driven by hidden agenda or ad hoc governance is not.

That President Duterte has tackled issues he perceives as fundamental to addressing our long-term viability during his first 100 days at once is an understatement. We are feeling that disruption now.

One hundred days in, the narrative lines can be drawn for both with ease. With just a little pure imagination, there’s nothing to it. At the one hundred day mark, it probably behooves us, and those in government, to hold our breath and count to three. If these days are any indication, the next one thousand has the potential to be even more disruptive, whether to our benefit or not remains to be seen. Imagine that.

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About The Author
Nik de Ynchausti
Nik Skalomenos de Ynchausti splits his time between the business world and the non-profit world. When he has the opportunity to write, he focuses on the intersection between Philippine politics, culture, history, and identity.
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