The Duterte Mirage

How long will it be before Filipinos wake up to the sheer lack of achievement in President Duterte’s year in office? He still stands high in the polls because of his uncouth, action-man image. From far right to far left criticism is muted despite a performance that which does not bear too close examination nor promise much new for the future, at least judging by his State of the Nation address on July 24.

Sure, the war on drugs is popular despite the massacre of many innocents and the focus on poor users and peddlers while upper income groups are in practice protected and the those who make the big money are shielded by layers of underlings. What was supposed to be a quick war shows no sign of having been won. Nor will it be. Stamping out drug use is an unlikely as stamping out corruption. Meanwhile other social ills which also largely hurt the poor go untouched – notably the jueteng, or numbers game, which finances so many of Duterte’s political allies.

Then there is law and order, supposedly Duterte’s area of expertise, notably in Mindanao. Yet the situation there is actually worse than a year ago. The battle for the Mindanao Islamic city of Marawi is evidence of just how deep Muslim resentments go and possibly have been exacerbated by the tactics – bombs etc – used against the rebels. Nor does blaming the situation on IS and a few foreign fighters convince any but the most blind supporters of Duterte.

The much-delayed Bangsamoro Basic Law may now go ahead but delay and all the talk of federalism has not helped moderate Muslims rally behind the government. Duterte’s tough-guy behavior may appeal to the Christian majority but has been offensive to many Muslims who have noted that lack of concern for human life applies to them as well as to drug suspects.

Likewise, promises of ending the NPA insurgency have gone nowhere. If anything, clashes have increased notably in Mindanao. Duterte’s claim to expertise in this region is not shared by lumads, indigenous peoples who have continued to be on the losing end of policies driven by and for political dynasties and that of Duterte, whose roots are in the Visayas cluster in the middle of the island nation..

Indeed, it is remarkable that the left generally has been so modest in its opposition to Duterte, seeming to believe that he would adopt radical policies and upset the status quo as promised. In fact, there has been scant progress on land reform, an alliance with the Marcos family, the use of martial law in Mindanao. Indeed nothing which actually fits the left’s agenda and plenty which should arouse its wrath.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The one area where the Duterte administration has performed reasonably by conventional measures is the economy, which has continued along an established growth path. But that’s an area in which Duterte has not intervened, leaving management to technocrats from previous administrations. But nor has there been any noticeable speeding up in infrastructure building or solutions to Manila’s famous traffic chaos – both areas where popular hopes for Duterte ran high.

There is scant sign of a concerted attack on corruption – indeed rather than under Aquino. Duterte’s own deal-making attitude was summed up by his urging the tax authorities to let Mighty Tobacco off with a large fine rather than pursuing criminal charges against those responsible for massive fraud.

Duterte has set himself up as a Philippine nationalist. Yet history is likely to regard him with infamy. Criticizing the US for its actions 100 years ago is all very well. But nothing will forgive his throwing away of the victory of the nation (and its non-Chinese neighbors) at the Permanent Court of Arbitration on its rights in the West Philippines/South China/Natuna/ East sea. Now he is set on giving away to China the Philippines’ exclusive rights to the gas resources of the Reed Bank in return for promises of Chinese cash.

The lack of public anger at this surrender causes neighbors, especially Vietnam, to wonder whether the Philippines sees itself as a nation rather than an agglomeration of fiefdoms run by local dynasties and more interested in playing against each other than for the nation. Indeed it is a reminder of the words of nationalist hero Jose Rizal about the pre-Hispanic Philippines explaining why Spain took control so easily:

Thanks to their social condition and their number in that time, the Spanish domination met very little resistance, while Philippine chiefs easily lost their independence and liberty. The people, accustomed to the yoke, did not defend the chiefs from the invader or attempt to struggle for liberties they never enjoyed. For the people it was only a change of masters. The nobles, accustomed to tyrannize by force, had to accept the foreign tyranny when it showed itself stronger than their own. Not encountering love or elevated feelings in the enslaved mass, they found themselves without force or power