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Duterte’s Year of Sound and Fury
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes the honor guards upon arrival from Russia at the Ninoy Aquino International airport in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines (May 24, 2017).
Image Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Duterte’s Year of Sound and Fury

 
 

Rodrigo R. Duterte, who completes the first year of his six-year term as president on June 30, is notorious for his unorthodox political style: curse-filled speeches enabling him to present himself as an authentic, straight-talking political figure who sides with the people. Duterte has quickly moved to replace a liberal, reformist political order in place since the people power uprising three decades ago with an illiberal “law over order” regime.

Duterte’s illiberalism has been facilitated by the weakening influence of the Catholic Church (which Duterte has effectively attacked as morally hypocritical), his domination of Congress through patronage, and his thus far largely successful efforts to intimidate the Supreme Court. It is telling that two of the most high-profile figures who oppose the macho Duterte (who is fond of rape jokes) are women – Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Leila de Lima. Robredo was forced to resign from Duterte’s cabinet owing to her criticisms of the drug war while De Lima was jailed on flimsy drug charges after she held Senate hearings about the brutal drug war.

Duterte is a local strongman gone national leading a bloody fight against the drug scourge, with estimates of the number of those killed by police and vigilantes ranging from 3,000 to over 7,000. To justify his war, Duterte bloats the number of drug dependents, claiming from “thin air” that there are 4 million, when figures from a study done by the government’s Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) places the total drug dependents at 1.8 million. (Piqued by the insistence of the DDB head of the accuracy of the lower figure, Duterte sacked him in a televised interview.)

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Duterte’s overheated rhetoric on the drug war hides his simplistic solution to a complex problem. A recent international study showed that violent “drug wars” around the world have done little to lessen the dangers posed by drugs and often target the most vulnerable in society, prompting one of the authors to predict that without first addressing poverty, exclusion, and the public health issues involved, Duterte’s drug war inevitably “will fail.”

Shocking revelations that Philippine police in the anti-drug task force kidnapped and killed a South Korean businessman in October 2016 forced Duterte to pause the drug war last January. But it was restarted only a month later, albeit at a slower pace with “only” one death every 50 drug busts as opposed to one every 20 in the early phase. These operations largely target petty drug peddlers while big time syndicates skirt the law by moving to territories where they can be protected from the selective reach of the state, including Marawi where the government is currently battling Islamist terrorists.

As the first Philippine chief executive to hail from Mindanao (where he was the long-serving mayor of Davao), Duterte promised to correct historical injustices in the southern Philippines. It is thus ironic that Duterte completes his first year in office facing his biggest challenge on his home ground. In late May, a homegrown pro-Islamic State group, the Maute group based in Lanao del Sur, seized large parts of Marawi city and engaged the military in a battle that continues to rage as of this writing. The violence has led to the death of more than 300 people, civilians and soldiers included, and the displacement of tens of thousands of Marawi residents.

The crisis in Marawi is testimony to Duterte’s naiveté. Despite his tough talk, earlier operations against the group failed and Duterte appears to have no idea how best to address the roots of armed conflict. The Maute group’s expansion has also been a result of the failure of the government to conclude the peace negotiations with another significant armed group in Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). While the commission tasked with crafting a basic law to create a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR) has completed its work, Duterte has expressed reluctance to certify the proposed measure as urgent to have Congress pass the law swiftly despite that fact that inaction might lead to further escalation of the conflict. There is also a sequencing question between the creation of BAR and Duterte’s promised, albeit still nebulous, federalism proposal.

Aside from the MILF, the government has resumed peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front-Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (NDF-CPP-NPA). Although talks have resumed after repeated setbacks, including an alleged order on the part of the NDF-CPP-NPA to intensify offensives against the government, prospects of a final settlement of the five-decade-old conflict also look dim.

On the international front, Duterte has prioritized improving ties with China and has thus downplayed the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision on the South China Sea, which rejected Chinese claims to sovereignty over wide swaths of the area in a clear legal victory for the Philippines and other claimants against China. Claiming he would “separate” from the United States after the Obama administration criticized human rights violations during Duterte’s “war on drugs,” the Philippine president repeatedly praised China, also with an eye on securing loans and investments. At the 2017 ASEAN Summit in April, which the Philippines chaired, Duterte did not push for a multilateral resolution to address the South China Sea issue.

Despite his bluster against the United States, however, Duterte had to accept the technical assistance provided by U.S. troops in the Marawi conflict, though he denied knowledge of it in advance. This comes only a month after a friendly phone call by Donald Trump, who praised Duterte’s drug war and again showed the U.S. president’s penchant for cozying up to strongmen.

Although robust economic growth has continued during Duterte’s first year in office with an expectation that this will continue in the next two years (2018 and 2019), the Philippine peso has depreciated, making imports more expensive and raising inflation worries. Recently, investments by Western companies have gone down substantially. Investment insiders report this is less due to worries about “America firstism” pressures from the Trump administration than to foreign firms’ worries about being seen investing in a country with such egregious human rights violations, a clear own goal for the Duterte administration.

Besides pushing a promising tax reform measure that recently passed the House, Duterte has done little to work to diversify an economy driven by the service sector and remittances from Overseas Filipino Workers. The country’s economy remains vulnerable to external shocks given the lack of substantial industrial capacity. Recommendations by the Asian Development Bank several years ago about the potential of niche industrialization continue to gather dust under the Duterte administration.

Another area in which Duterte has disappointed in his first year is in moving quickly to fulfill his promise to expedite infrastructure projects bottlenecked under the previous Aquino administration. When he assumed the presidency, Duterte indicated the need for emergency powers to solve the traffic problem in the metropolis or end delays in big public infrastructure projects, but has not pushed lawmakers to grant him this authority. A year into his administration, the public continue to suffer from breakdowns in the limited mass public transportation system, long delays at airports, and thoroughfares that look like parking lots.

To finance public infrastructure, Duterte seems to favor government-to-government (G2G) projects, relying particularly on Chinese loans that require working with Chinese companies and loans in foreign currency. A leading businessman, otherwise supportive of Duterte’s accelerated spending on infrastructure, warned about the subsequent debt burden and conditionalities associated with G2G. Moreover, there is little evidence that bureaucratic capacity issues have been addressed, including stronger inter-agency coordination, eliminating over-lapping responsibilities, and developing the skills/competencies of the staff in charge of such projects.

Except for the economic managers and social policy oriented personalities, Duterte’s cabinet is far from the “best and the brightest” that his supporters claimed would be brought in to bring real political change. Duterte focused on the need for trust to justify his appointments of former classmates and long-time friends. Yet already three of these friends have been let go of, two by Duterte himself, for violating that trust. Other top officials have been forced out after administrative infighting reminiscent of the chaos of the Trump administration.

Observers have often been at a loss to explain why Duterte enjoys strong public support. Duterte’s high approval is typical of a chief executive’s first year in office, as the public rallies around their new president. It can also be attributed to a strong economy due to reforms implemented by his predecessors and sustained by his economic managers. But clearly his tough talk has resonated in a country with a broken criminal justice system, despite Duterte actually further undermining the rule of law. During the presidential campaign Duterte enjoyed particularly strong support in the middle class — taxi drivers, small shop owners, call center agents, and overseas workers — worried that they would lose fragile gains from the years of economic growth unless “order” could be restored. Duterte’s popularity has recently begun to decline among the poor who have been targeted in the drug war and are yet to see any substantial new social programs aimed at improving their well-being.

A year is usually too short to make an assessment of a presidency. But in the case of Duterte, there have been more dramatic events – the war on drugs, the proclaimed “separation” from the United States and the tilt toward China, and now the conflict in Marawi – than during the entire presidencies of most of his predecessors. Yet besides inflated rhetoric, Duterte has little to show in terms of major reforms, while a number of policies have clearly backfired. What is worrisome is that Duterte seems likely to inflict more damage on already weak institutions.

Ronald D. Holmes is an assistant professor of the Department of Political Science of De La Salle University, Manila. He is also president of the opinion poll research organization, Pulse Asia Research Inc. He is currently completing his dissertation on the political economy of pork barreling in the Philippines, at the Department of Political and Social Change of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.

Mark R. Thompson is professor and head of the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong, where he is also director of the Southeast Asia Research Center. He has published extensively on Southeast Asian politics and is currently completing a co-authored book manuscript on the Philippine presidency.

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