By Perry Diaz
A week after his landslide presidential victory, Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte’s cabinet is shaping up: a mixture of business leaders, leftists, communists, political allies, and personal friends. On the surface it looks like a broad-spectrum government reaching out to all sectors of the country. That’s good… at least on paper. But at a closer scrutiny, it reveals a master chess player who is lining up his pieces adroitly to achieve “tunay na pagbabago” – real change – which he promised during the campaign.
Indeed, Duterte is already raising eyebrows in political circles. While there are the usual skeptics, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive with people hoping that he’d deliver on his promises, which detractors say are impossible to accomplish. But to the common people – the masa – they welcome the radical changes that he vowed to make, which begs the question: Can he deliver? Or are these just promises meant to be broken… just like what traditional politicians – trapos – do all the time? But the people have been too forgiving – and forgetful — and continue to elect trapos year after year. But this time around, they demonstrated their frustration and anger at the political establishment by voting for a man who admittedly used unorthodox methods, to say it mildly, to rid Davao City of criminality during his term as mayor for two decades.
During a campaign rally, he vowed to kill criminals, saying: “The drug pushers, kidnappers, robbers, find them all and arrest them. If they resist, kill them all.” And to emphasize his point, he told the crowd, “Go ahead and charge me with murder, so I could also kill you.” At another rally, he promised to “take out” 100,000 criminals and dump them in the Manila Bay so “fish will grow fat.” Ordinarily, people would cringe at that kind of vulgarity. But to those who are fed up with the impunity of criminality and corruption, his blunt warnings give them hope that finally there is one fearless leader who was determined to do whatever it would take to protect the people.
Indeed, if one has to characterize Duterte’s landslide – nay, tsunami – victory over his four rivals, it’s a protest vote against the corrupt government that the people believed had betrayed the sacred covenant of the EDSA people power revolution 30 years ago. The people see in Duterte someone who has the balls to do the unconventional way to achieve social justice.
While Duterte’s overwhelming victory on Election Day may be deemed as a mandate to pursue the things he promised by whatever means he’d chose, there is the danger of failure, which could end his reign as dramatic as his rise to power. He promised early in his campaign that he would eradicate crime and corruption in three to six months, which the people bought hook, line and sinker. They pinned their hopes on this singular promise and expected him to deliver, not a day longer than six months! But what if he failed?
A failure six months into his presidency could wreck his administration beyond repair, just like what happened to his three predecessors, one of which was ousted and another one is currently in detention facing plunder charges, which makes one wonder: Short of declaring martial law, what’s his game plan?
Blueprint for success
Recently, he unveiled an 8-point economic agenda. His plan includes: (1) Initiate reforms in tax revenue collections; (2) Set aside 5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) for infrastructure spending; (3) Attract foreign investors; (4) Provide support services to farmers to increase productivity, provide irrigation services to them, and promote tourism in rural areas; (5) Address bottlenecks in our land administration and management system; (6) Strengthen basic education system; (7) Improve tax system by indexing tax collection to inflation rate; and (8) Expand and improve implementation of the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program.
It’s a good economic plan and it is doable. However, its success hinges on the elimination of corruption. He promised that his administration would vigorously prosecute those who engage in corrupt practices. But isn’t this what all his predecessors promised but failed to do? Can he fire and prosecute – no exceptions — his cabinet members and their underlings, most of whom are his political allies or personal friends, if they engage in corruption? Can he stop jueteng, which he promised to do, and prosecute the jueteng lords who are protected by powerful politicians?
If he has the political will to punish erring subordinates, then he has won half the battle. If so, we should see some of his appointees’ heads rolling within six months, because there will always be those who would be tempted by the aphrodisiacal smell of dirty money. If not, he can then kiss his entire promises goodbye and govern the country just like some of his predecessors… that is, corrupt to the core.
It’s interesting to note that Duterte has made at least 21 political appointees, most of whom have links to powerful political figures. Ten were appointees or allies of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, six are Duterte’s personal friends or classmates, one is the son of Nacionalista Party stalwart Manny Villar, and four posts are reserved for members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) under Jose Ma. Sison.
And talking of communists, China’s ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua paid Duterte a courtesy call in Davao City on May 16, a day after Duterte said he was open to “bilateral talks” with Beijing over the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). Zhao congratulated Duterte on his victory and expressed his country’s expectation of working with Duterte’s administration to “properly deal with the differences, deepen traditional friendship, and promote mutually beneficial cooperation, so as to bring the bilateral ties forward.”
Although Duterte was open to negotiating directly with China, he had made patriotic statements during the campaign about Philippine sovereignty over the disputed territories. To drive his point, he said he would ride a ski jet to the Scarborough Shoal and plant a Philippine flag.
The following day after Zhao’s visit, U.S. President Barack Obama called Duterte personally to congratulate him also. Duterte told Obama that he is open to having bilateral talks with China on the disputed territories if the current efforts to resolve the issue failed. However, he assured Obama that the Philippines will continue her mutual interests and is allied with the Western World on the West Philippine Sea row.
During an interview with the media, Duterte said he will hold a steady course on the territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea, and he is in no hurry to quit the multilateral approach pursued by President Benigno Aquino’s outgoing administration. He said that if the multilateral approach stalls after two or three years, then he would proceed with bilateral talks. Is this a signal to Obama that if the U.S. cannot stop China in the West Philippine Sea, he’d unilaterally negotiate a settlement with China?
It’s noteworthy to mention that during the campaign he suggested that he was willing to set aside the Philippines’ claims if China agreed to build railways across the Philippines and hold joint exploration for resources in the disputed waters.
With all these mixed signals, Duterte seems to be playing his cards close to his chest. We can see his opening gambit but nobody knows how he’s going to play the end game. And in between his opening gambit and end game, his brand of politics will manifest itself.