In the Philippines, Who is the Real Duterte?

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will be in China from Oct.18 to Oct. 21 to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, yet another polarizing action as he moves beyond his 100-day honeymoon as the nation’s chief executive.

Using a combination of bluster, brutality and vulgarity to espouse domestic and international policies that have veered wildly in different directions, the Duterte presidency, “is the most powerful administration since the time of [late dictator Ferdinand] Marcos,” Richard Heydarian, a professor of political science from Manila’s De La Salle University, said. “We have a rubber-stamp Congress and he will appoint 11 Supreme Court justices.”

The new president’s huge political capital has been largely wagered on his fight against drugs, which may or may not threaten the fabric of the nation, and a questionable transition of loyalties from the West to China. The administration, though, has also issued an executive order aiming to eradicate poverty and hunger by 2040 and increase the number of middle-class Filipinos. In order to realize that vision, Duterte must start creating institutional reforms and not just spend his energy on making waves.

The decision to strengthen ties with China and to go hard against the Philippines’ long-time ally the United States is just one of the administration’s actions that have sown frustration among some of the country’s defense, legal and political observers.

Analysts are concerned that the president will squander a historic legal precedent won in July over Beijing in a maritime dispute involving parts of the South China Sea (which the Philippines refers to as the West Philippine Sea). Duterte, however, began to cozy up to China as early as the presidential elections in May, and especially after China expressed support for his war on drugs. Duterte in May stressed that he will “not insist on the ownership” of the disputed maritime area.

Despite that, he has veered in different directions. In a press conference on Oct.16, Duterte said “there will be no bargaining” if and when the two leaders talk about the Philippines’ historic win over China. Yet, he added that “there will be no hard impositions.”

It’s the latest in a string of bombastic, controversial pronouncements that have also put off the international community – from the vitriol directed at US President Barack Obama, to giving the EU the finger to likening himself to Hitler – with the trigger behind all of this a war on drugs that has resulted in the killing of more than 3,000 people, most of them likely poor people who use shabu, the Filipino term for crystal meth.

For most Filipinos, Duterte is regarded as a man of action who is accessible to the masses. His approval rating remains high 100 days into his term, with the results of the Social Weather Station Surveys conducted in September showing a net satisfaction rating of +64, the second highest among Filipino presidents in their first few months in office (the highest was former President Fidel Ramos, who got +66), while Pulse Asia polls revealed that 86 percent of Filipinos “appreciate” Duterte’s work and “trust in him.”

But aside from rocking the boat and saying that drug users and pushers should be killed, Duterte has taken some steps in other areas of governance that could be viewed as the beginning of much needed-reforms. These policies and programs are still new, but their implementation will be a guide to whether the firebrand head of state can truly deliver long-term socioeconomic transformation.

Addressing aspects of corruption

Unlike President Benigno Aquino III who stridently campaigned against corruption, even making it his core platform in the 2010 elections, Duterte didn’t highlight the prosecution of corrupt public officials as much as he did his war on drugs.

The president, however, has addressed domestic problems that were symptomatic of corruption and which Filipinos have long complained about. Duterte has installed a 911 hotline for quick rescue and response and also introduced an 8888 line to report on corrupt public personnel. This was a program he first started in Davao as mayor. Immediately on taking office, he bypassed the legislature to sign a long-stalled freedom of information act.

These measures and others, however, are still in the early stages of implementation. What is clear though is that the application of these initiatives must be refined and strengthened, with Duterte impressing upon the rest of the government that he is serious.

There have been lapses in implementation. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism slammed the Philippine National Police, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Interior and Local Government for dragging their feet in responding to FOI requests. The PCIJ asked the three agencies to provide them data on those arrested and killed in the war on drugs, but got no response. DOJ Sec. Vitaliano Aguirre also that his office did not receive the requests, a claim that PCIJ refuted.

Politically progressive

Duterte is also a self-identified leftist with longstanding – if murky – ties to the nation’s communist leaders from his early days as mayor of Davao City. He has appointed left-leaning leaders to key cabinet posts such as the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). DAR Sec. Rafael Mariano used to be a representative of the pro-communist militant group Anakpawis, while DSWD head Judy Taguiwalo was a known communist.

Other cabinet directives challenge the status quo and attack the business elite. These include the orders of Labor secretary Silvestre Bello III to shut down the featherbedding practice of contracting out government functions.

Another bold move came from Environment secretary Gina Lopez, a critic of mining, who has ordered the suspension of mining permits if companies failed to pass an environmental audit. Twenty of 41 mining companies have so far failed the audit.

Both orders have been questioned by the business sector. Duterte also replaced Leo Jasareno, the head of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau which headed the audit, creating doubt over the future of the audit.

What could be seen as the test of Duterte’s politics is his engagement with the National Democratic Front, the political front for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Although initially exchanging barbs with NDF chief political consultant and founding chairman of the CPP Jose Ma. Sison after a short-lived unilateral ceasefire, the Duterte government later freed NDF consultants Benito and Wilma Tiamzon and formed a peace panel. A second round of peace talks with a once-strong insurgency that has sputtered in recent years recently concluded in Oslo, Norway.

“Duterte’s commitment to resume peace talks with the NDF, his pledge to release political prisoners involved in the talks, his designation of two nominees of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) to head the departments of Social Welfare and Agrarian Reform, and his declared policy to address poverty through meaningful reforms have encouraged hopes for authentic change in a country long in the iron grip of a murderous ruling elite,” UP journalism professor Luis Teodoro wrote in a commentary for Businessworld.

When personal biases become foreign policy

The president’s main campaign though – to eradicate the drug trade in the country at the expense of a citizen’s right to due process – has earned him reproach from countries abroad, one of them is the US. He has also caused unease among leftists not directly allied with the CPP who have seen past governments use extrajudicial killings to target activists.

Duterte has promised the police that he will protect them if they kill drug users and pushers and also told the public to go after the supposed menace. It’s a pronouncement that has inspired vigilante killings. The US said it is "concerned by reports regarding extrajudicial killings of individuals suspected to have been involved in drug activity in the Philippines." The EU has also condemned the killings.

The president’s response was to castigate both, saying the country can instead strengthen ties with China and Russia. Duterte has also said the war games between the US and the Philippines this year will be the last, saying he will terminate the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), but he has yet to send an official statement on the revocation of the deal.

Duterte’s radical changes in foreign policy have inspired deep concern among some public officials. Sen. Bam Aquino has filed a Senate resolution asking the government to clarify the country’s foreign policy. Former President Ramos, who supported Duterte’s candidacy in the May 2016 elections, has also criticized the president for his threats to severe military ties with the US.

War on Drugs or war on critics?

Amid international rebuke, Filipinos laud the president’s war on drugs. An SWS survey in September showed a net satisfaction rating of +76 regarding the policy, though 71 percent said that suspects must be “caught alive.”

Among public officials, the harshest critic of the extrajudicial killings is Sen. Leila de Lima, who ordered a probe into the killings when she was chair of the Senate committee on justice and human rights. De Lima, however, was removed from her position by Duterte’s allies in the Senate after she presented Edgardo Matobato, a self-confessed hit man who claimed to have received orders from Duterte to kill when the latter was mayor of Davao City.

De Lima paid a high price for going after Duterte. Aside from losing the committee chairmanship, she was subjected to a congressional probe that was supported by Justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, who used convicted criminals, former police officials and De Lima’s former personal aide to accuse her of accepting drug money to support her senatorial campaign. The low point came when House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a Duterte ally, said a sex tape would allegedly show De Lima with her driver – who was also accused of taking drug money. The sordid threat was dropped after female lawmakers called the move misogynistic.