The Duterte in the Eye of the Beholder

The true sign of a successful demagogue is when leaders from various points of the political and social compass believe that he represents them. Thus with President Duterte – so far, at least.

Of course it is early days and many of the above may find that after a few months in office he was all bluster and none of their expectations are significantly fulfilled. However, a casual reading of the opinion columns in such newspapers as The Philippine Daily Inquirer provides a revealing insight into the nature of an appeal that is supposed to encompass all classes and ethnicities, even if they come from radically diametrical points of view.

He says yes, I say no

For instance, the 91-year old leading light of contemporary Philippine literature, F. Sionil Jose, is convinced that the long-awaited hero to slay the demons of elitism and corruption which have long impoverished the majority of Filipinos.

Not for Jose any weeping and gnashing of teeth over the summary executions of the alleged grass-roots users and pushers who have been the main targets of death squads but rejoicing at “the start of a revolution which is uniquely Filipino” with a President “courageous enough to challenge the Catholic Church …. And the arrogant and, yes, unclean media.” This is just the beginning of “Mr Duterte’s assault on the rotten status quo.”

Here according to this leftist, nationalist beacon of dissent is the beginning of a war that began with drugs but will sweep through society, being felt by the highest enclaves of privilege and by the corrupt bankers, businessmen, policemen and politicians at the heart of the system.

He sees Duterte “taking the high moral ground” by accommodating the communist left and “extending a hand to the Moro rebels” – as though no one had done this before.

He further enthused: “This revolution is rooted in ethics and patriotism.”

In brief, Jose is indulging in the hope that the revolution against the elite and oligarchs for which he has long yearned is beginning while he is still alive to appreciate it.

For sure, Jose’s analysis of the woes of the nation has long been widely accepted including by many of the more perceptive members of the elite he has skewered so precisely. However, projecting his hopes onto the potential of Duterte to do much more than make populist noises and pursue campaigns against mostly low-life drug users and pushers into wholesale societal change seems a stretch when one notes who else is now praising the new president.

Not for him an analysis of Duterte’s record in Davao which, the death squads apart, showed scant evidence of revolutionary fervor, let alone with rejection of the dynastic politics of which the author has, rightly, so long attacked as a symptom of oligarchic politics.

But he says no, I say yes!

That indeed may well explain why the very same day that Jose was writing in the Inquirer, so too was the chairman of that pinnacle of the established order, the Makati Business Club, Ramon del Rosario Jnr, who could hardly be more out of line with Jose’s call for a violent revolution.

“The Duterte administration is off to a running start and the business community is enthusiastically applauding,” del Rosario enthused. Nor was this just a case of a worried community trying to ingratiate itself with a revolution-minded president. “The starting point is an economic team composed of experienced executives and professionals,” del Rosario enthused. “Particularly notable are Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, NEDA Director General Ernesto Pernia, and Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno.” In short, several “safe pairs of hands” were in charge of specific policies

Del Rosario went on to note several initiatives in infrastructure, tax reform, education, infrastructure, reproductive health etc. that simply give new impetus to existing programs. However, he enthused that setting the Duterte team apart was “a willingness to take risks, make hard decisions and get things done.”

There are feel-good factors aplenty but being willing to talk to the communists and Moros is easy. The hard decisions on peace are in the future. As for resolving Manila’s traffic mess and overstretched airport, the importance attached to these rather belies the President’s anti-Manila rhetoric – unless he is willing to incur middle class metropolitan wrath with hefty taxes on car ownership.

As for bringing on board most of the one-time opposition to his coalition in Congress, is this really a recipe for decisive, radical government? More likely it means more interests have to be satisfied. For instance, there is Duterte’s very public embrace of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., hardly reassuring, and his offer to give his father a hero’s burial.

For sure, Duterte is likely to be more willing than Noynoy Aquino to remove underperforming officials to speed up project decision making and implementation. But it is hard to detect anyone or anything in the economic and social policy arena that might be deemed radical enough to upset the Makati Business Club. Indeed less red tape and common sense solutions to problems while laudable do nothing to change fundamentals.

Nor is it remotely clear how Duterte’s concept of federalism fits with the preferred agendas of either Jose or del Rosario. Nor what sort of relationship between President yand the congress is envisaged by the quest for a more parliamentary form of government. Yet so far as Duterte has a platform and clear priorities at all, it boils down to the drugs campaign and federalism. His plain speaking, anti-elitist, anti-Manila stance, and apparent sympathy for the underdog and ability to communicate with a mass audience are impressive.

But without the follow-through of policy they become simply a means of attaining power. They are also the tools of a demagoguery that can lead to intolerance and autocracy without producing social change.

The focus on drugs is clearly especially popular. Yet one must ask whether all those middle class people cheering on the death squads bother to wonder if their own young sons and daughters are occasional users. What if they get gunned down? Is retribution mostly reserved for the poor who can be disposed of without creating a fuss? One wonders too where drugs really should rate in the order of criminality when corruption and kickbacks are so pervasive. It is a reminder of the US where poor blacks are jailed by the tens of thousands for crack cocaine offences, yet the drug users of Wall Street and Hollywood are untouched by the law unless they collide with it over other matters.

Scepticism about the Duterte presidency may be premature but he can surely not satisfy both Jose and del Rosario for long if they want action not rhetoric.