Questions over Duterte’s Philippine Cabinet

By electing Rodrigo Duterte, the rough-hewn outsider from Mindanao as president, the people of the Philippines have voted for change, perhaps radical change. But whether they will get much beyond a lot of rhetoric and possibly some dubious action against drug dealers and criminal gangs, is far from certain.

Let's not start with the vote for the presidency itself but with those for the Senate, the Congress and provincial governors. These posts will determine whether the basic structure of Philippine politics and administration will change. Yet there was absolutely no sign that the country's quasi-feudal politics were disturbed in contests that were mostly between big-name local families, with a dominant family usually sustaining power election after election.

The name Duterte may be relatively new on the scene compared with families such as the Osmenas and Cojuangcos but though he will now move to Manila there is scant doubt his family will rule the roost in Davao. Indeed, his only spell in Manila was as a congressman when he had to step down as mayor for a term – allowing his daughter to take over, swapping places as vice-mayor. A son is also active in local politics.

Vice-president and former (since 1986) Makati mayor Jojomar Binay may have ended with a poor showing in the presidential election, coming fourth after long being the front runner. But despite the allegations of corruption that have swirled around the family, another Binay topped the local polls. Binay’s wife, daughter and son are all involved in politics at both the Makati and national level.

The families prevail

Bongbong Marcos, only son of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, may have narrowly failed to win the vice-presidency, but the family’s grip on power in their Ilocos Norte region remains secure with congressional seats and a governorship.

The list of local families returned to office is a long one. Most confine their attention to local control but they have influence at the center through congress and hence will follow the patronage trail.

There is not much sign that Duterte regards this state of affairs as anything other than normal, let alone a major problem for a nation where corruption and political patronage are intertwined and where political forces usually overwhelm the best endeavors of honest officials to implement policies according to the rule book.

Indeed, Duterte’s espousal of a federal system of government would likely further entrench local elite interests. He has yet to spell out what he has in mind and whether it would have any chance of being approved. It may well be a daydream but so long as he espouses it, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which was close to being passed under Aquino would likely have to be put on ice. Indeed, it might be shelved altogether if some of Duterte’s allies who have been strong opponents get their way.

But all is not lost with the appointment of Jesus Duraza as negotiator with the Moros. He did this job credibly under Arroyo whose deal with the Moros was sunk by the Supreme Court. Duterte has a reputation for an inclusive attitude toward Muslims and Lumads, indigenous tribal groups, but it is unclear how this translates into official policy. But it is simply impossible to be simultaneously pursuing the Moro law achieved after decades of negotiation and embarking on a major re-write of the constitution.

The fact is that this goes beyond his experience as a mayor and Duterte is still feeling for a policy. The same applies to dealings with the communists. He announced in a stab at peace that they would be given government ministries, so-called political prisoners would be released and exiled leader of its political arm the National Democratic Front Joseph Maria Sison invited to return. Yet there seems no plan behind it. The NDF is suspicious, the military keeping quiet and others simply wondering what carrots would be needed to entice its shrinking armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), which is a splintered mix of ideologues and extortionists. Again, talks with the NDF are to be in the hands of one who has done the job before, Silvestre Bello III.

Thin on the ground

Appointment of a few leftists remains a possibility but is not the real issue. The list of appointees so far suggests Duterte’s circle of advisers and contacts is so narrow that he is having to rely either on associates from Mindanao or on retreads from previous governments, particularly Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s. Two are the Davao police chief who is to head the Philippine National Police, and the strongly anti-Moro governor of North Cotabato, Emmanuel Pinol, as Minister of Agriculture.

Overall it looks like most cabinet members come from the the Arroyo administration. Arroyo has been charged with massive corruption and the fear is that people who voted for the current president, Benigno S. Aquino III, to get rid of Arroyo, then voted for Duterte in a campaign for change only to see vestiges of the old.

Ex. Jun Evasco, who managed his campaign, is a former rebel priest and mayor of a Visayan town. He was supposed to be executive secretary but he has turned it down. Duterte’s campaign spokesman Peter Tiu Lavina assumed he would be government spokesman. Instead Duterte chose Salvador Panelo, former lawyer for members of the notorious family of Andal Amatuan, boss of Maguindanao province, perpetrators of a savage massacre of political opponents and journalists in 2009.

Those from established political families from elsewhere include as Education Minister Peter Laurel, grandson of JP Laurel, president under Japanese rule, and nephew of the late Salvador Laurel, vice-president under Cory Aquino. The large but always quarreling Cojuangco clan is likely to be represented by Gilberto Teodoro who was Defense Minister under Arroyo.

The respected Carlos Dominguez, a Davao business figure and friend of Duterte who drafted his economic agenda, had been minister of Agriculture and was announced as Finance Minister but declined the post. His replacement will likely be a similar figure reassuring to local and foreign business. Indeed foreign business has high hopes for Duterte’s desire to change constitutional bars to foreign investment in various fields. There is hope too that the Transport and Communications Ministry will be more effectively managed by Arthur Tugade, a self-made businessman who currently runs the Clark Development Corporation which runs the Clark Freeport Zone.

Foreign policy a puzzle

Foreign policy is less predictable given Duterte’s seemingly contradictory remarks about China and the West Philippine sea. He is believed not to like Americans but his nationalist, populist instincts will have to face up to the reality of Chinese challenges. On the one hand he has talked of a bilateral deal with China – to the fury of Vietnam among others – but also accused the Aquino government of in effect surrendering the Scarborough (Panatag) shoal to China to the detriment of the rights of Philippine fishermen to these rich waters well within Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. Appointing a lawyer, Perfecto Yasay, with no known experience in foreign affairs as minister is a worry, not least for Asian neighbors accustomed to dealing with professionals in this field.

On this as on other subjects Duterte’s tendency to bombast and shoot-from-the hip statements makes tracking of likely policies difficult.

So what may be new apart from more populist language about a Duterte presidency? Much has been made of his success in reducing crime in Davao and making it a physically clean place. But the cost in lives has been considerable and anyway is unlikely to be replicable nationally. It sounds appealing to some but probably only possible there because his long years of dominance as mayor, and perhaps at the price of government control of rural regions outside the city.

He may fret if the Senate and the courts resist some of his anti-crime measures but a replay of Marcos’ martial law looks unlikely. His focus on drugs is popular but the Philippines' drug problems are not large relative to other regional countries. What is a much problem is smuggling and tax evasion. If he can get a grip on those, the nation would have cause to be grateful. But does he have a team that can do this? There is scant evidence to date.

Disappointment in store

Thus those looking for major change in a country which, despite recent improvements in social and economic conditions, still lags the region in standards of administration will probably be disappointed. However, populist language and demeanor will take him a long way, especially if there is any improvement in standards of the police and policing. He owes nothing to the church and hence family planning made possible by Aquino’s long fight for the Reproductive Health law will get a big boost. And the chances are too that Duterte will be far less tolerant of the failings of ministers and officials than Aquino, whose mostly well directed policies were too often poorly implemented by friends and associates he was too forgiving to fire.