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Analysis: Understanding the Duterte vision for the Philippines

New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, right, stands on the dais as outgoing President Benigno Aquino III reviews the troops during inauguration ceremony Thursday, June 30, 2016 at Malacanang Palace grounds in Manila, Philippines. Duterte becomes the 16th President of the Philippine Republic. AP/Bullit Marquez

MANILA, Philippines - Rodrigo Duterte’s inauguration on June 30 as President of the Philippines has brought a sense of cautious optimism across all sectors of the society, which has clamored for a swift end to endemic corruption, inefficiency in the bureaucracy, income inequality, and the proliferation of armed groups and other lawless elements. Duterte’s rise can be understood as part and parcel of a broader collapse of barriers-to-power, which is transforming politics both in the Philippines and internationally. All over the world, “micropowers,” whether individuals, firms, or states, have found ways to undermine established players that previously served as the gatekeepers of power.

During his campaign, Duterte positioned himself as an alternative to traditional presidential candidates. His unorthodox demeanor appealed to many Filipinos, who saw him as unafraid to speak his mind, even to the extent of testing the limits of so-called “civilized” behavior. As a result, the millions of Filipinos that voted for him have high expectations for his presidency.

Given these expectations and the growing curiosity of foreign observers over the man nicknamed “The Punisher,” it makes sense to expound Duterte’s three overarching policy thrusts: reestablishing law and order, making Philippine growth inclusive and restructuring the Philippine system of government. These three thrusts are the means by which the Duterte administration will seek to turn his campaign promise of “Tunay na Pagbabago” or radical change into lived reality. 

Reestablishing law and order

The centerpiece of Duterte’s campaign platform was suppressing the three so-called evils: crime, illegal drugs and corruption, which he believes are undermining security across all sectors and hampering the growth of the domestic economy. He pledged to instill discipline with an iron fist for everyone to adhere to the rule of law and strengthen the country’s justice system.

The centerpiece of Duterte's campaign platform was suppressing the three so-called evils: crime, illegal drugs and corruption.

To reestablish law and order, he plans to launch a focused, time-bound campaign against criminals, drug lords and corrupt government officials through the joint efforts of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). This will occur in tandem with the elevation of city-level ordinances from Davao, such as curfew on unescorted minors past 10 p.m. and a ban on the sale of liquor and drinking in public spaces after 1:00 a.m., and so on to the national level.

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He desires to bring an end to the decades-long Communist and Moro insurgencies. An early group of his peace negotiators met with representatives of the National Democratic Front from June 13 to 14, 2016. News reports indicate that a ceasefire agreement could be put in place even prior to the first State of the Nation address on July 25. Duterte offered to elevate members of leftist groups to four line departments. At present, however, it is not certain that Duterte fully appreciates the depth of Communist movement, its network of political front organizations, and their end objective.

The Moro groups have seen similar attention: Duterte had a joint meeting with the leadership of both the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on June 18. Both groups reportedly support the move toward federalism. At present, there is some uncertainty over the implementation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law as a stand-alone measure or as part of a push toward a federal system in the country—another campaign priority for Duterte. Either case could be expected to provide a greater share of autonomy to the proposed region.

Making socio-economic growth and development inclusive

Duterte has expressed his desire to build on the stellar accomplishments of the administration of outgoing president Benigno Aquino III, particularly the latter’s good governance initiatives and critical structural reforms that transformed the Philippines from being “the sick man of Asia” into “Asia’s rising tiger.” Of his ten-point socioeconomic agenda revealed on Monday, June 20, for example, his first point was to continue and maintain current macroeconomic policies, including fiscal, monetary and trade policies.

However, he intends to depart from Aquino’s legacy of instituting slow but steady macroeconomic reform by advancing an economic agenda which seeks to upgrade, accelerate as well as expand the government’s basic services that shall render the country’s macroeconomic environment more conducive for the flourishing of businesses, influx of investments and conduct of seamless trade within the country and the greater ASEAN region. Some megaprojects worth anticipating include: (a) three major railway systems, namely the Mindanao railway, Manila-Bicol railway, and Manila-Batangas railway; (b) Zamboanga Ecozone, Southern Mindanao Growth Corridor (General Santos growth corridor and Davao Gulf Industrial corridor); and the South Mindanao-North Sulawesi ro-ro link, among others.

Duterte intends to overcome the alleged structural dissonance between macroeconomic reform which has been the hallmark of Aquino’s “Daang Matuwid” program and concrete improvement of living conditions and standards of Juan dela Cruz. In doing so, he has talked about pursuing the following: generation of domestic jobs; increase of employment; abolition of contractualization; promotion of livelihood; agricultural modernization; and entrepreneurial, technological and industrial advancement with just taxation and equitable distribution of wealth while caring for the environment for sustainable development.

Duterte intends to overcome the alleged structural dissonance between macroeconomic reform which has been the hallmark of Aquino's "Daang Matuwid" program and concrete improvement of living conditions and standards of Juan dela Cruz. 

He also plans to carry out: improvement of government provision of social services which include education, health, housing, mass transportation with special attention to the elderly, women, children, youth, indigenous peoples and other marginalized sectors; provision of assistance to Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and their families; and adaptation to climate change through reducing risk, preparing for natural disasters and adopting 911 nationwide.

Restructuring the form of government

Lastly, Duterte wants to overhaul the unitary-presidential system and shift to a federal-parliamentary system through a Constitutional Convention. He desires the holding of a plebiscite and preparing the future federal states to effect power-sharing, resources-sharing, respect-for-all and development-for-all as key to reforming the whole bureaucracy to effect good governance. Reforms under the new system are said to include: increasing the salaries of government workers; fighting graft and corruption; and unleashing the full potentials of all regions and ethnic groups for social, economic and cultural growth. Furthermore, constitutional amendment shall lift restrictive economic provisions in the Constitution, grant more foreign ownership of property and certain industries.

The uncertain but promising road ahead

While Duterte’s policy thrusts are intended to improve internal security and catalyze inclusive growth in the country, one can’t deny that his vision will, in reality, draw opposition along multiple fronts. He is not only about to wage a bloody war against the “undesirables” such as criminals, drug syndicates and corrupt officials who for decades have thrived in the dark underbelly of modern Philippine society. Over and above these, he looks set to wage his own revolution against what he sees as a dysfunctional political and economic system that has created and perpetuated obstructions the Philippines’ path to industrialization on the other.

He is not only about to wage a bloody war against the "undesirables" such as criminals, drug syndicates and corrupt officials who for decades have thrived in the dark underbelly of modern Philippine society.

However, a strong populist leadership can sometimes fall victim to parochial thinking. Having been used to running a secondary city without serious opposition, there is some fear that Duterte could travel down the path of arrogance toward abuse of power at the national scale. As elected legislators have begun to fall in line, the creation of a “super majority” in Philippine Congress could transform it into a rubber-stamping body. It is imperative for the Filipino citizenry to maintain a collective critical mindset and attitude on what his mantra truly means and how it is carried out. While we should support security and development policies and strategies that will help build strong institutions and genuinely democratize political power, we ought to remain vigilant against any tendencies to build a new religion around his quasi-messianic, strongman persona.

It is imperative for the Filipino citizenry to maintain a collective critical mindset and attitude on what his mantra truly means and how it is carried out.

Nevertheless, used wisely, his strong mandate can help to institutionalize needed government reforms, clear up regulatory gridlock and, at least for the next six years, stabilize the policy environment. At the very least, increasing investment and promoting growth have been identified as policy priorities for the next six years. It is in everybody’s interest to see the phenomenal rise of Duterte in the annals of history as the moment we as the Filipino nation freely chose a humble Visayan probinsyano from the distant island of Mindanao to instill upon us a renewed sense of national pride and lead us to reclaim, redefine and deepen democracy, on our own terms.

***

Dindo Manhit is the president of Stratbase-Albert Del Rosario Institute (ADRi) for Strategic and International Studies.

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