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Opinion

Set piece

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

"Those who destroy my country, I will kill you because I love my country, I can do it the legal way but it would take years.”

Rodrigo Duterte, 16th President of the Republic, has just delivered the central set piece of the political calendar in a non-election year – the State of the Nation Address. According to law and tradition, the chief executive accounts for the achievements of the past year to the pursestring-holding legislative and sets out the plans for the year to come.

Duterte is at the end of his term so his address was also very much about his legacy, and to a certain extent it signals the start of the election campaign. Politically, he is a “lame duck” as politicians’ and public interest is diverted to find the next president, though of course he will wield enormous influence on the outcome of the next election.

I was asked to participate in The Philippine STAR’s Facebook live coverage, providing analysis before and after the address itself. In the end Duterte went on for so long, the post-game analysis was ditched. The central question was about whether Mr Duterte’s unwavering, increasing and overwhelming popularity is deserved. It’s a more nuanced version of the question I’ve heard over and over again living overseas. Why is President Duterte so popular? Non-Filipinos often ask, apparently baffled. I am not sure that those asking have looked very closely at the culture, economy and politics in the Philippines, for perhaps they would have a better idea. Without doing a bit of homework, it is an annoyingly patronizing question – there’s an underlying attitude that there’s something wrong with all those people.

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece here about how fear pervades the time in which we live, in the sense that the COVID pandemic has everyone asking “Am I safe?” Safety or security are experienced and aspired to in multiple and complex ways, depending on your perspective. Duterte’s political genius has been partly to do with the way he plays to people’s fears. His hard man attitude towards criminals is unconventional for a SONA but falls on the welcome ears of anyone afraid that they may fall prey to criminals. Let’s face it, that’s a very common fear that politicians around the world have played on.

Ironically, at one point in the SONA, Duterte said “the majesty of the law must prevail;” the exact opposite of his exhortations to kill people in the streets. That’s the profound problem that Duterte’s message and its popularity creates: it devalues the rule of law and due process to resolve problems, setting in motion a self-serving vicious cycle of killing and revenge. It is a prescription for death.

At the same time, Duterte has had real policy successes, that play to different fears. For those with health problems or loved ones with health problems, access to affordable, decent health care provides them with an important sense of safety from enduring financial hardship and support. I’ve no doubt that part of the reason Duterte is so popular is because, even before the pandemic, he managed to sign universal health care into law, automatically enrolling all Filipino citizens in the national health insurance program and reforming the health system.

“The majority of Filipinos only consult a doctor when their illnesses are already at their worst because of the lack of government support to the health department. According to our Department of Health, up to 54 percent of the country’s health care spending in 2016 came from out-of-pocket expenses. That means Filipino families still account for the lion’s share, they still carry the biggest burden when their loved ones seek treatment for whatever sickness they have. That weight should not be theirs to carry alone. In fact, they should not have to carry that weight at all.” observed Senator Sonny Angara, chair of the ways and means committee.

Duterte’s administration also managed to get students and their families free tertiary education, removing another huge potential financial burden that opens up the possibility of going to college for millions of young people.

In his last year of office, Duterte’s administration is most likely to be judged on how it deals with the Delta variant of COVID-19, and the President knows it. He warned the public that he wouldn’t hesitate to go back to lockdown if necessary and if things got worse “maybe we’ll just have to pray for salvation,” a deliberately folksy turn of phrase.

A set piece like the SONA, choreographed by government propagandists, is designed to provide the President with a favorable setting. In this case, abhorrent and terrifying as the exhortations to kill from the Philippines’ top official are, it also provides an insight into the “secret” of Duterte’s popularity. It’s not that mysterious.

At one point in The Philippine STAR’s coverage, I compared the Philippines’ handling of the COVID crisis with the UK’s. Here are the numbers: according to Reuters, the Philippines is reporting 5,846 new infections on average each day, that’s 54 percent of the peak, the highest daily average reported on April 15. There have been 1,543,281 infections and 27,131 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the average number of COVID-19 deaths reported each day has been consistently increasing for seven days. It is reporting 37,710 new infections on average each day, 62 percent of the peak – the highest daily average reported on Jan. 5. There have been 5,697,912 infections and 129,158 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began.

Opinion divides fiercely over this 16th President of the Republic. I suspect whoever Duterte anoints will have a strong advantage and his popularity provides a template for subsequent contenders’ success. It must be confronted if the republic is to move on.

RODRIGO DUTERTE
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