The Philippines in 2021: Duterte’s Flip-Flops and Women Holding the Line

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Philippines in 2021: Duterte’s Flip-Flops and Women Holding the Line

The past year has reflected the tendencies and eccentricities that marked Rodrigo Duterte’s first five years in power.

The Philippines in 2021: Duterte’s Flip-Flops and Women Holding the Line

Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa of the Philippines gestures as she speaks during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at Oslo City Hall, Norway, Friday, December 10, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

The year 2021 saw Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte make a series of dramatic political flip-flops that characterize his final year in office. Meanwhile, several women have earned national and international recognition for their advocacy and achievements amid the pandemic and rising authoritarianism.

Duterte avoided being treated as a lame duck when he offered himself as a candidate of the ruling party for vice president. But in October, he announced his retirement from politics and instead endorsed the candidacy of his former aide. A month later, he agreed to run for senator but changed his mind again when he withdrew from the senate race two weeks ago.

The president’s last-minute pronouncements could be part of the election strategy that he successfully used in 2016, but this year’s high-profile withdrawal of candidacies has left the ruling party with no official candidate for president.

Duterte’s penchant for making contradictory actions reflected his style of governance during the first five years of his term. He vowed to adopt federalism but failed to prioritize bills that would change the country’s form of government. Before he quit the senate election, the new political party he supported was established to promote federalism.

During the 2016 campaign, he boasted that he would ride a jet ski and plant the country’s flag on one of the islets being claimed by China in the South China Sea (known locally as West Philippine Sea). This year he clarified that it was just a joke and people were “stupid” for believing it.

In 2020, he notified the United States government that he was scrapping the Visiting Forces Agreement. But this year he suspended the termination a number of times before canceling it altogether, which put into doubt his claim that he was intent on pursuing an independent foreign policy.

At the same time, Duterte assured United Nations bodies that his government would cooperate in probing state forces accused of committing abuses in his anti-drug campaign, yet the scope of operations to be reviewed was restricted by the Department of Justice.

He admitted a few months ago that he has “nothing” to show for his presidency yet he recently stated that he has already accomplished what he promised to do during the campaign.

Duterte has normalized the delivery of incoherent and conflicting sound bites but he seems unperturbed that this could undermine his credibility. In a year marked by Duterte’s flip-flopping antics, the nation’s attention turned to inspiring individuals, including many women, who stood their ground despite facing state-backed persecution.

First, there was artist Patreng Non, whose idea of a community pantry sparked a nationwide movement and exposed the failure of the Duterte government to address hunger during the country’s prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns. Non was unfazed by a redbaiting backlash waged by Duterte supporters and was later vindicated when even government agencies started their own pantries to provide food and other relief goods to the needy. The government said it monitored 6,700 pantries which offered assistance while communities were placed under COVID-19 lockdowns.

Next, there was weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who brought home the nation’s first Olympic gold medal from Tokyo. She, too, was trolled by pro-Duterte supporters when she asked for bigger government assistance in 2019. Even the president’s spokesperson included her in a matrix identifying individuals and groups involved in an alleged destabilization plot. Diaz chose instead to focus on her training and went on to make history this year by winning the Philippines’ elusive first Olympic gold medal. Her victory turned her into an icon and modern hero, aside from eliciting an apology from the president’s counsel for previously implicating her in its dubious anti-government matrix.

Then there was the journalist Maria Ressa, who shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with her Russian counterpart Dmitry Muratov, making her the first Filipino Nobel Laureate. Ressa won the award for asserting the role of independent media in demanding accountability from the government. Her speech at the awards ceremony in Oslo tackled the harassment she and her news company Rappler have faced under the Duterte government:

In less than two years, the Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me. I’ve had to post bail 10 times just to do my job. Last year, I and a former colleague were convicted of cyber libel for a story we published eight years earlier at a time the law we allegedly violated didn’t even exist. All told, the charges I face could send me to jail for about 100 years.

But Ressa also reiterated her commitment to “hold the line” on truth. “The more I was attacked for my journalism, the more resolute I became,” she said. “I had first-hand evidence of abuse of power. What was meant to intimidate me and Rappler only strengthened us.”

And lastly, we have Vice President Leni Robredo, the leader of the opposition, whose “Pink Movement” supporting her 2022 presidential bid has revived hopes that it is possible to challenge the dominance of Duterte’s political machinery. Robredo is often praised for being quick on the ground during emergency situations and this was recently affirmed when a strong typhoon battered several island provinces in the central part of the country. Her previous simple act of fulfilling her duty as a public servant was once deemed a threat by Duterte himself.

Another notable woman newsmaker in 2021 was Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte. Like her father, she changed her mind about not running for a national position when she filed her candidacy for vice president. This did not sit well with the elder Duterte, who publicly criticized his daughter’s running mate. But despite rejecting her father’s party, Mayor Duterte is expected to get the support of administration allies. Hence, her candidacy represents continuity and an endorsement for the Duterte presidency.

Similar to other countries in the region, 2021 was a difficult year for the Philippines which battled surging COVID-19 cases and a weak economy reeling from extended lockdown measures. Will 2022 bring change or will Filipinos choose to continue to support the tainted legacy of Duterte?