Legacy of death

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Administration supporters will find it unfair. But what is remembered in any administration is its most unique feature – something that differentiates it from the previous dispensations.

And like it or not, what will always be associated with the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte is death: by the thousands – some carried out by state forces, with more inflicted partly by bungling and partly by the cruelty of fate.

About 7,000 people have been killed so far, by the official count of the Philippine National Police, in connection with a brutal campaign against illegal drugs that is a fulfillment of Duterte’s most memorable campaign promise.

And in the last two years of his watch, as fate would have it, 27,224 Filipinos have died as of yesterday, directly or due to complications from COVID-19. The administration would not want to take the blame for this. But others – particularly many who lost their loved ones or who have yet to recover from ruined livelihoods – fault the government for dropping the ball on the early delivery of sufficient vaccines, for its embrace of China that allowed the virus from Wuhan to freely enter the country, and for a generally disappointing response that is reverting the country to its place of dishonor as the sick man of Asia.

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With all the personal sorrow and financial misery all around us due to the pandemic, it is easy to overlook Duterte’s achievements.

While he failed to deliver on his promised push for federalism, he concluded a peace process that led to the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

He achieved tax reform that included lowering individual income and corporate taxes and making unhealthy products more expensive.

Laws were passed for universal health care, mental health care and free college tuition, although financing the populist measures – already a problem pre-COVID – has become a greater challenge especially with the Delta variant promising a prolonged battle.

Duterte forged ahead with implementation of the Reproductive Health Law, and passed the Ease of Doing Business Law to strengthen the campaign against red tape.

Our passport and driver’s license now have longer validity. And more people have been added to the conditional cash transfer program that was initiated (let’s give credit where it’s due) during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

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But the bad memories tend to be more indelible than the good. And so we remember the executions of nanlaban suspects, the COVID deaths and mad scramble for limited vaccines, the regular swarming of Chinese ships within our maritime exclusive economic zone.

We remember Duterte’s public cussing and misogynist jokes, breaking his campaign promise to “behave” upon assuming power.

Public discourse under Duterte is defined by Larry Gadon, and the President’s views are perfectly expressed by his pugnaciously arrogant mouthpiece. At least Gadon has the guts to take responsibility for his words and deeds, unlike the cowardly, anonymous paid trolls (one was outed by Facebook) who stalk Duterte opponents. Outspoken critic Sen. Leila de Lima got worse treatment and landed in detention.

At his inaugural, Duterte had called for national healing. But he has become one of the most polarizing presidents. These days he is proving to be deeply divisive even within the political party that he chairs and under which he ran in 2016, the PDP-Laban.

His speeches also extol the futility of working for academic excellence, citing himself as the perfect illustration of why it doesn’t matter.

Other failed campaign promises: ending endo or contractualization and the traffic jams in Metro Manila. Remember the five-minute EDSA challenge, from Quezon City to Makati? It left traffic managers scratching their heads, wondering if that was the effect of fentanyl. Only COVID lockdowns allowed that to happen… artificially, of course, and only temporarily, because traffic slowed down again as businesses gradually reopened.

The new skyway from Alabang to Balintawak eased traffic for several months. But with the collection of stiff tolls that only billionaires will find affordable especially in this financially devastating pandemic, motorists prefer to slog through ground level traffic jams daily, leaving the skyway merely as an emergency option.

Studies have shown that Metro Manila traffic costs the economy billions annually. If the government can build non-toll roads across the country to give access to the businesses of favored political allies and cronies, why can’t it build an elevated road about 43 kilometers long within Metro Manila that is free to the public, to ease chronic ground level traffic?

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While Duterte issued an executive order for Freedom of Information, his congressional allies shut down the network he hated, ABS-CBN (remember the 70 lawmakers who voted for the move, folks). And he is ending his term happily abiding by the self-serving order of the Office of the Ombudsman that allows top public officials to withhold from public scrutiny their official SALN or statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

The peace process with communist rebels has been replaced by deadly red-tagging. And the campaign against corruption has been selective. Duterte is also an unabashed supporter of political dynasties, which foster corruption.

Under his watch, dictator Ferdinand Marcos became a hero. And forget jet-skiing to the Spratlys; China’s Xi Jinping is being promoted (with little success) as the Philippines’ best friend forever (or at least until June 30, 2022).

Duterte can always say, “I promised to bury Marcos in the heroes’ cemetery; I promised to kill and kill. Filipinos handed me a landslide victory, and I’ve delivered on the promises.” Unfairly or not, death will be remembered as the Duterte legacy.

May our life in the past five years bring home the significance of the admonition to be careful what you wish for, and the importance of our vote.

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