Sharp criticism from his erstwhile major supporter, former Philippine President Fidel Ramos, has been a surprise antidote to the popular praise heaped on Rodrigo Duterte for the first 100 days of his administration.
Outsiders might see his performance as almost entirely negative, focusing on his encouragement of murder of alleged drug dealers, insults to foreign rulers and best efforts to alienate the United States. Most Filipinos appear to see these as indicating he is a man of action rather than an erratic, unscrupulous, foul mouth with national policies driven in part by personal grudges and an unstable personality.
But Ramos has taken a very different view and one that seems likely to gain traction. He made two main points. Firstly, the large-scale killings in the drug war have diverted attention from more important issues facing the nation, in particular addressing poverty. He attacked Duterte for using curse words and uncivilized language that have brought the nation into disrepute internationally. And perhaps most significant given the close relationship between the Philippine military and the US, Ramos castigated him for his announced ending of joint exercises and operations with the Americans.
Ramos, a West Point graduate, focused on those comradely links in contrast to Duterte’s efforts to fan anti-Americanism by dredging up the history of more than 100 years ago and the US war of conquest.
These remarks were doubly significant given that Duterte appointed Ramos to be his intermediary in talking to China. Any suggestion that Ramos would go along with any Duterte plan to weaken the Philippine stance on its South China Sea rights, recently underpinned by the decision of the Court of Arbitration in The Hague, in exchange for offers of large Chinese sums for infrastructure finance seem wide of the mark.
Distancing the Philippines from the US is certainly applauded in leftist and some nationalist circles but is unlikely to have wider appeal given the extent of family ties, not to mention strategic interest, with the US.
Ramos, who is well connected in Southeast Asia, is doubtless also aware that Duterte’s efforts to appear independent of US support is not endearing him to neighbors such as Vietnam and Japan which have every interest in keeping the US engaged.
Duterte now appears to be moving to add an anti-smoking campaign to his war on drugs. But for many this will simply be another diversion away from any significant steps on the poverty front. Business is so far reasonably happy with him if only because most of the Aquino era policies remain in place. There is some attention to agrarian reform but progress on that front is always slow.
Meanwhile the drug war killings and anti-US stance are unlikely to encourage foreign investment from anywhere except China – which is, ironically the source of most of the drugs used in the Philippines. The impact will be minimal if the President begins to heed the likes of Ramos, but investors face plenty of hurdles in the country without worrying about the volatility of the president. Vendettas such as being pursued against former Human Rights Commissioner and Justice Secretary Senator Leila de Lima. Having had the temerity before Duterte was elected president to want an investigation into drug killings in Davao, she herself is now being accused of protecting drug dealers. The treatment of de Lima is further evidence that the Philippines under Duterte is a lawless country run by a thug who has moved from provincial warlord to the presidency.
Ramos’ voice of sanity may yet be heard but meanwhile some in the Catholic Church have become more active critical voices. Popularity comes before principle for many bishops and priests. Some too may fear for their lives if they openly oppose the killings or risk being branded protectors of drug dealers. But Duterte’s attacks on the church for criticizing the killings led one leader, Archbishop Arguelles, to forecast further deterioration in relations.
Duterte is threatening to reveal the names of priests alleged to have mistresses or be corrupt. Doubtless some allegations may be true. But like so much else that he says, allegations seldom come with hard evidence.
That former supporter the much admired Ramos, arguably the country’s most effective modern president, has spoken out is testimony to the concern with which Duterte is increasingly viewed despite the public acclaim for his blood-stained policies and crude outbursts. It will take a while yet before Filipinos in general tire of him and before the many venal politicians who jumped on his bandwagon jump off. But surely they will unless he can show achievements other than the killing of citizens and the destruction of relations with a key ally.