The Philippines Under Duterte: Reassurance Needed At Home and Abroad

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The Philippines Under Duterte: Reassurance Needed At Home and Abroad

The country’s president must start reconciling rhetoric with reality as he prepares to govern.

The Philippines Under Duterte: Reassurance Needed At Home and Abroad
Credit: Flickr/Keith Bacongco

In yet another interesting turn in Philippine politics, controversial, tough-talking mayor Rodrigo Duterte has won the 2016 presidential elections (See: “Controversial Duterte Clinches Win in Philippines Election Amid Uncertainty“). Duterte’s victory has sparked worries about a dramatic reversal from his reform-minded predecessor Benigno Aquino III, who had ushered in a six-year period of impressive economic growth and begun to address the manifold political and security challenges that have caused the country to lag some of its Asian neighbors for decades. While these fears may end up being overblown, Duterte’s troubling rhetoric means that his first task must be to reassure others both at home and abroad about his agenda for the country.

Duterte’s appeal among some Filipinos is understandable. Though the country has been a democracy since the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, its politics still tend to be characterized by powerful dynasties, widespread corruption, and, far too often, intimidation and violence. Even Aquino, who was dedicated to a new brand of politics, was the son of a former president and was criticized for his failure to reduce poverty rates, manage crises, and tame the country’s restive south (See: “Will the Philippines’ Next President Maintain Aquino’s Reform Momentum?“).

Capitalizing on this, Duterte, mayor of Davao City, ran a populist campaign, styling himself as a tough-talking outsider who could decisively eradicate corruption and crime. That platform eventually won him the day, even if offhand comments about gang rape, extrajudicial killings, and jet-skiing in the South China Sea triggered uproar and confusion in some quarters. It did not hurt that his chief rivals – first time senator Grace Poe and former interior secretary Mar Roxas – were both vulnerable due to their perceived inexperience and ineffectiveness respectively.

As Duterte puts together his cabinet and prepares to take office June 30, the focus will now shift to how he will govern and the extent to which he will continue or depart from Aquino’s policies, some of which have put the country on an upward trajectory. Yet despite his record as mayor and his colorful rhetoric, we still know very little about what he would actually do as president. Given this, Duterte’s first task should be to aim to reassure others at home and abroad about the agenda he has for the country.

On domestic policy, bombast aside, several of Duterte’s proposals actually appear to not depart significantly from the Aquino years, and those that do seek to improve constructively on them. On economics, for instance, his emphasis on anti-corruption and support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) signals more continuity than change, while the greater focus on agricultural reform is apt given the failure of the Aquino government to make inroads in a sector that employs about a third of the population (See: “Confirmed: Philippines Wants to Join TPP“).

If Duterte does not intend to throw the baby out with the bathwater on economics, that would be a welcome development considering reforms under Aquino have led the Philippines to emerge as one of the region’s fastest-growing economies. And if he appoints capable technocrats to key economic ministries, he can help reassure both the country’s citizens as well as foreign investors that he will have some capable hands running the economy of Southeast Asia’s second most populous nation.

Where he has signaled change from Aquino, Duterte has either said too little about what this actually means or has blurted out alarming statements that require clarification. It is still unclear, for instance, how he aims to build consensus for a proposal to revise the Philippine constitution to transition to a federalist form of government, or what exactly his plan is for peace in the southern Philippines. In both cases, he could set himself on a collision course with either spoilers on the ground or powerful elites back in Manila.

As for his ‘toughness’ on crime, his public admission to being linked to brutal death squads that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people in Davao City during his time as mayor and more recent comments effectively supporting extrajudicial killings are concerning to say the least. Though Duterte is fond of dismissing this as an overhyped reaction to his manner and sense of humor, this is no laughing matter in the Philippines where egregious human rights violations still occur. Back in November 2009, 58 individuals, including dozens of journalists, were murdered in the Maguindanao massacre, the worst act of election violence in Philippine history and the single deadliest incident for journalists the world had known. As president, Duterte cannot continue to talk and act in ways that undermine the rule of law rather than strengthen it.

On foreign policy, his rhetoric is worrying even if the realities he faces are likely to constrain him from translating his proposals into practice. On China, he has said that he would set aside differences with Beijing on the South China Sea if the Asian giant would build the kind of railway for the Philippines it has built in Africa. Though that rests on China setting aside sovereignty claims – something it has been reluctant to do thus far – it nonetheless bears an eerie resemblance to the approach the Philippines pursued under Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. At the time, a controversial joint development deal in the South China Sea inimical to Manila’s interests was cut with Beijing in exchange for Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, which ended up being embroiled in one of the largest corruption scandals in Philippine history.

If it continues into his presidency, Duterte’s ignorance of rights and his misplaced outreach to China may also risk complicating ties with Western countries, chiefly Manila’s ally Washington. Irrespective of who won the election, few expected U.S.-Philippine relations to be as warm as they were under Aquino and his former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario. But if Duterte gets off on the wrong foot with Washington, he will lose a valuable opportunity to further build on the foundation of the Aquino years and leverage the U.S.-Philippine alliance to strengthen Manila’s armed forces, which are currently one of the weakest in the Asia-Pacific. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) offers an excellent opportunity for Duterte to instill the kind of toughness that the country really needs in the defense realm (See: “A Big Deal? US, Philippines Agree First ‘Bases’ Under New Defense Pact“).

Closer to home, Duterte should ensure that he keeps the Philippines’ focus on strengthening ties with its Southeast Asian neighbors as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While ASEAN’s limits are well-known, Manila’s involvement as a founding member is critical, particularly as events like the upcoming verdict on the Philippines’ South China Sea case challenge the unity of the regional grouping. The Philippines will also be chairing ASEAN in 2017, which affords Manila the opportunity to shape the agenda. Rather than adopt the narrow, self-interested outlook of Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who continues to be disinterested in regionalism relative to his predecessors, Duterte should both ask what the Philippines can do for ASEAN as well as what ASEAN can do for the Philippines (See: “Is Indonesia Turning Away From ASEAN?“).

In the days since Duterte won the election, some have been urging observers to overlook his rhetoric and aspects of his past record. But it is up to a president to quickly and clearly outline his agenda and reassure domestic and foreign audiences, instead of leaving them wondering about whether he will actually do what he says. As he prepares to enter office June 30 and looks ahead to his first state of the nation address the following month, Manila’s new leader should keep that in mind.