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The Extension of Rodrigo Duterte’s Toxic Legacy
Philippine president joins Vladimir Putin in a bid for revolving door leadership
By: Criselda Yabes
The transformation of Davao City is the centerpiece that made Rodrigo Duterte president of the Philippines. As mayor of that city for two decades, he imagined he could do to the entire country what he had done on his home turf.
He succeeded in replicating the heavy-handed ways he carried out in Davao, which lived by violence and the pettiness of local politics, infected by the feudal mentality of equating power to personal whims. That by stopping crime, business flourished and that was the bargain that people approved of.
When the 76-year-old Duterte said he would run for vice president in the 2022 national elections, he doesn’t want to step down from power after having completed the six-year presidential term mandated by the constitution. He will find a loophole that would allow him to be running mate to a proxy candidate that might – if the proxy willingly steps down – make him president again. He shares this plan with one other president – the despot Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has evaded Russia’s one-term limit by swapping offices with lackeys for 22 years.
This has been the common practice of perpetuating dynasties in provincial-scale politics: when a term is over, another family member steps in only to keep the seat for the comeback of the real boss. That was how he stayed mayor for years. Then Duterte’s daughter, Sara, became Davao’s mayor after her father moved up to the presidential palace in 2016.
But there’s a family squabble currently taking place: Duterte wants his close aide Christopher Go (who won a seat in the Senate just by being the president’s right-hand man) to be his presidential candidate, pushing aside his daughter, who fumed at such an arrangement when she has been the one leading in the polls. Other observers say this might be another game Duterte has up his sleeve.
“Why is a family ‘quarreling’ over a public office as if it were private property?” veteran political journalist Marites Vitug posted on Facebook. “What makes them so entitled to keeping the presidency?”
By and large, the past five years of Duterte in office has upended expectations of a country that’s supposed to be moving forward, if gauging from the economic progress Davao City had achieved under Duterte’s watch. As president, his brutal anti-drug campaign went nowhere according to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. He gave power to the trigger-happy police and he kept the military at bay from mutinies, among other things that spat at reforms in a democracy.
His voters, his rabid supporters among them, didn’t seem to have realized that Davao is not the same as the rest of the country, that it is just one piece of a complex archipelago. What Duterte did was to superimpose it as the be-all and end-all recipe of a Philippine solution. That error now has the country gasping for decent order and decorum.
The Philippine kind of a bandwagon democracy that made Duterte a popular figure has come wobbling in the face of the pandemic. Simply because he did not have this template of a health crisis from Davao, he used the one from his drug war – stay locked down or I will deal with you. Obtaining vaccines slipped behind. The once-elevated standard of presidential office has gone for naught.
“People voted on the basis of hatred,” said Rafael Ongpin, a writer and management consultant, referring to the 2016 elections that marked a drastic change in Philippine politics. It was, he added, the first time in electoral history when personal fury against other candidates went overboard.
Duterte’s campaigners hijacked the peace and order issue that was not a top national priority and raised it to the image of Davao, as if showing that what the country needed had been already achieved in that southern Philippine city. Surveys have always shown that people would choose candidates who were not corrupt and sided with the poor, but when voting day came around, it was gone.
As it was in Davao, Duterte runs the country from his public pulpit, spewing out whatever comes to mind, usually incoherently, and also cursing, threatening and lying. In Davao, a radio program was devoted to and dominated by him. Now as president, he has the full resources of government propaganda, not to mention the troll farms of his fanatical followers.
The pandemic has put the nation squarely in the hands of a government that showed minimal competence in the health crisis. Not only have the months languished in intermittent lockdowns owing to limited testing and tracing, but officials have come to be the face of corruption.
The Commission on Audit has unearthed unusual spending by the Department of Health, whose secretary is under fire on social media but who Duterte refuses to let go in his cabinet. The department, as it turned out, turned over PHP8.7 billion (US$174.7 million) worth of contacts to a dubious company called Pharmally that supplied overpriced masks, goggles, thermometers, PPEs.
The company was linked to the president’s former economic adviser, and what’s more, the bidding was carried out by an office from the Department of Budget and Management under an official with close ties to Go, the president’s sidekick whom he wants to be his proxy in the presidential elections come May.
Duterte has only unsavory words for the audit commission as well as the Senate that wants to probe this case. Meanwhile, he has been appointing Davao comrades that were part of Go’s circle into senior positions in a special appellate court handling corruption by public officers.
“We do not know if the Duterte government is the most corrupt administration ever in our history. The signs are not good,” wrote legal experts Tony La Vina and Javvy Gamboa for Rappler news online. “This is plunder, plain and simple.”
Criselda Yabes is an award-winning journalist and the author most recently of The Battle of Marawi, which was reviewed in Asia Sentinel.