FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

At the end of next month, Rodrigo Duterte will step down from the presidency with the highest approval ratings since scientific polling was taken. The office he will vacate will never be the same ever again.

The man was imperious but never imperial. He may jumble his sentences, but the people understood his message.

He was last heard saying he will return to his hometown, ride his big bike and continue to hunt down criminals. Those were words said for effect. The greater likelihood is that he will return home and spend quality time with his grandchildren like most people his age happily do.

Duterte was a storm when he entered the national consciousness in 2015, a reluctant but colorful presidential aspirant from an important but distant city in the far south. The ultimate outsider, his language was rough and his garb ordinary. Supported by only a handful of standard politicians, he swept to power in 2016 on a sudden surge of voter support.

His promise of change captured the imagination of Filipino voters. Although he started campaigning late in the game, he won by a landslide.

Days before he was inaugurated, his supporters convened a broadly representative workshop in Davao City to arrive at the policy priorities of the new administration. This workshop, the Sulong Pilipinas, has been regularly reconvened to update the policy priorities and add new inputs. This was the means the new administration ensured policy formation was inclusive and consultative.

The anti-Duterte opposition tried, through all this time, to bend the narrative of his presidency towards apparent abuses of civil liberties. They were relatively successful with the international audience, casting the Duterte presidency as personifying the trend towards “illiberal democracy.”

The domestic audience, however, saw quite another thing. They felt the substantial decline in the crime rate as they walked the streets at night with less fear. They saw an administration working hard to reduce poverty, modernize the economy and support the vulnerable sectors.

Enjoying supermajority support in Congress, the Duterte administration pushed a comprehensive tax reform program that lowered rates for corporate and personal income taxes to approximate the benchmarks of our peer economies. This improved the disposable income of wageworkers and attracted investments.

The national ID system was finally enacted after 25 years. This is a precondition for the digitalization of governance, more efficient delivery of public services and greater financial inclusion for ordinary citizens.

Liberalization reforms created a more open economy and adopted the best practices of our regional neighbors. Complemented by the Ease of Doing Business Act, the amendments to the Public Services Act and the Retail Trade Liberalization Act, our economy became substantially more business friendly.

Of the liberalization reforms, freeing up rice trading was the most important. The Rice Tariffication Act sat on the legislative shelves for over three decades because of strong opposition from entrenched interests. Duterte’s legendary political will got it passed into law.

Before the liberalization of rice trading, government heavily subsidized the National Food Authority. Rice prices were a major inflation driver. Market inefficiencies encouraged speculators and hoarders. When calamities struck, rice was rationed. Our farms were kept in subsistence mode.

With liberalization, the market was left to make the vital decisions on supply and pricing. The staple commodity ceased to drive inflation. Tariffs collected from rice trading became a fund for modernizing our farms. It was a win on every count, opening the way for modernizing the way we do agriculture – even if our farmers have to be dragged to do so.

The centerpiece program of the Duterte administration is the Build Build Build program. The modernization of the country’s infrastructure is essential to sustained economic expansion in the years to come. The program addressed the congestion of our ports, airports, roads and railways.

The infrastructure modernization program also spearheaded the strategy of rapid economic expansion. It created new jobs and opened new investment opportunities. When the pandemic waylaid our economy, the program was key to our recovery strategy.

This modernization program would have been costly and beyond our means had we not achieved the highest credit ratings ever. Our ratings performance brought down the cost of borrowing the money we needed to modernize our logistics system. Our investment-grade rating is the product of many years of exemplary fiscal discipline and debt management.

The public has a better-rounded appreciation of the achievements of the Duterte administration. This explains the high approval ratings.

Those ratings are the reason the non-administration candidates tried very hard to avoid making the just-concluded electoral campaign a referendum on Duterte. They all dropped their years-long anti-Duterte agitation.

The opposition skirted around the sitting president. Some of them actually tried to win Duterte’s endorsement. Those deeply invested in the effort to denigrate the Duterte presidency courted rejection at the polls.

Some might wish we had a more eloquent President. But that would have undermined the quality of authenticity that endeared Duterte to our voters. There was something about his rough language that made him more believable.

All in all, Duterte delivered more than his detractors expected. We will see that in the failing numbers of the politicians who tried to build their careers demeaning him.

Even as he craves leaving the seat of power, Duterte will not walk quietly into the night. He is too outspoken to do that. He will continue to be a voice in our politics.

There is a standard western characterization for Duterte as president. It is different from what most of our voters understand.


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