Funny, problematic — exasperating


President Rodrigo Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address (SONA) was at various times challenging, funny, and puzzling. Particularly problematic, however, were his statements on human rights, the drug problem, and even the media. As has become evident since Day One of his administration, Duterte continues to exasperate through a number of statements as well as policy declarations that were in conflict with each other.

The challenge was for Congress, which he charged with the crafting and passing of the laws that, for example, would lower income and corporate taxes as well as reform the tax system to make it “simpler, more equitable and more efficient” so it can “foster investment and job creation.” Realizing his proclaimed commitment to relaxing the bank secrecy laws will also require an act of Congress, as will removing “restrictions” in the economy via Constitutional amendments to encourage more investments and to develop labor intensive industries.

The biggest challenge of all, which will require that Congress either convene itself into a constitutional assembly or call for a constitutional convention, is Duterte’s federalism advocacy in behalf of decentralizing governance by further freeing the country’s regions from the control of “imperial Manila,” as well as to allow the Bangsamoro people a measure of autonomy.

In one of those rambling asides characteristic of his public issuances, Duterte described Bangsamoro marginalization, which has fueled a long-running conflict in southern Philippines, as the consequence of “capitalist and imperialist” intrusions into Mindanao. In a break from the usual clichés acknowledging the legitimacy of the US colonial regime’s and past administrations’ encouraging migration by describing Mindanao as the “Land of Promise,” Duterte disparaged that policy as responsible for Bangsamoro disempowerment and dispossession. But he made it clear that the State “cannot return everything that has been taken” from “our Muslim brothers,” although he did guarantee the restoration of their ancestral domain once peace in the region is restored.

In furtherance of the peace that he has repeatedly declared he hopes to see in the entire Philippines during his term, Duterte then announced a unilateral cease-fire in military operations against the National Democratic Front of the Philippines’ (NDFP) New People’s Army (NPA), to which the NDFP positively responded within hours. Presumably the mutual cease-fire would be conducive to the resumption of the peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the NDFP on August 20 this year, as well being a condition to the release of 11 NDFP peace consultants who are currently in government custody.

But Duterte’s recurrent theme, as he departed several times from his prepared speech, was the campaign against the drug trade. Declaring that his administration “shall be sensitive to the State’s obligations to promote, protect and fulfill the human rights of our citizens, specially the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable,” as well as affirming that “the rule of law shall at all times prevail,” Duterte nevertheless also urged the police to keep doing what they have been doing, and to double and even triple their efforts until every drug lord is either “behind bars” or “below the ground.” What the police have been doing as almost everyone now knows by now, is to put an increasing number of alleged drug dealers and even users “below the ground,” the record so far being nearly 400 dead since Duterte’s June 30 inauguration as president.

And yet in the same address Duterte also pledged to protect the rights of women, of Muslims, of the poor and of indigenous people, and to stop the demolition without relocation of informal settler communities. Duterte also vowed to protect journalists, in apparent reference to the killing of media practitioners and workers that has been going on since 1986. But he also said in the same breath that only “bona-fide” journalists would be so entitled.

He did not mention his Freedom of Information executive order, which he signed on July 24 — and neither did he urge Congress to pass an FoI Act that would apply to all three branches of government, his EO being limited in application only to the executive department.

Although near-universally hailed by the media as “historic,” the EO’s being limited in application is only one its inadequacies. While we can acknowledge that by issuing the EO Duterte appreciates the need for an FoI, his EO’s Section 4 (Exceptions) merely affirms the status quo in which citizen and media access to government-held information is already restricted by existing rules. (Section 4 denies access to information when it “falls under any of the exceptions enshrined in the Constitution, existing law or jurisprudence.” It orders the Department of Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General to “prepare an inventory of such exceptions” and to update them as new laws and jurisprudence add further exceptions to the list.)

In another demonstration of his conflicting policy and other statements, in urging Congress to achieve the shift to federalism, Duterte also urged its members to retain the position of president “as in France” (which is NOT under a federal system), which would defeat the intent of decentralizing power.

The irony is that a strong presidency is what a country in need of rapid development — which Duterte emphasized — requires. Decentralization, in addition to strengthening the power of the dynasties based in many of the country’s regions and provinces, would weaken State capacity to direct development efforts. And did Duterte really declare, despite Environment and Natural Resources’ Secretary Gina Lopez’s opposition to it, that the Philippines would continue to rely on coal as an energy source, while earlier saying that he and Lopez had the same views about the environment?

How to account for these disparities in the emerging policies of the Duterte administration? One possible explanation is the eclectic character of his Cabinet, which is a merry mishmash of leftwing activists, former military officers, centrist career bureaucrats, members of the economic and political elite, and at least one neo-liberal technocrat from an international finance institution. However, the Duterte Cabinet is also the living expression of Duterte’s own political and ideological conflicts — he chose them all — as well as being the officially mandated driving force behind the change through State action he has promised.

The question of the hour is whether such a disparate team, with Duterte at its head and with the support of the “supermajority” of dynasts, landlords, bureaucrat capitalists, warlords and party list activists in Congress, will, or can even lead the country to Duterte’s promised drug-free land of peace and prosperity without inflicting irreparable damage on the Bill of Rights and the rule of law between now and 2022, when his term ends.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in the Business World
July 29, 2016

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