News and Features

Duterte and other Philippine Problems

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“So it begins.”, I told myself, as I watch helplessly the continued barrage of Rodrigo Duterte antics and mishaps. Without Allan Peter Cayetano, the responsibility of official interpreter of the President-elect now falls to his staff and incoming cabinet officials. The medium is different but the message is the same: it’s our fault that we cannot understand the president-elect because we are biased, deserving of death or criminals ourselves. What is interesting is that all of these happen even before he assumes the presidency. The deadline for him acting presidentiable seems to move according to whim; then when he won, now when he assumes office. It seems all manners of change are coming except his own.

But Rodrigo Duterte is not everything which is wrong about the country – he’s but a temporary albeit powerful placeholder in this dysfunctional system of ours. Then it was PNoy’s noynoying, Gloria was too distant, Erap ,too macho. Our problem go beyond the sexist, violent, and tactless Duterte; beyond presidential personalities, leadership styles and goals.

The desire for change is always construed as novelty without consideration that some things take time or that the inter-generational poverty we suffer from for centuries cannot be broken in six years

For one, our politics is based on personality and not policy. The debates are a testament to that. Have we had clear policy camps, we would vote based on the directions we want the country to take. We can choose candidates well because policy platforms are clear and we can vote where our agreements lie. You don’t like the Public Private Partnerships? Go vote for someone with a different idea. Unfortunately, the plans of Duterte are revealed to us only now after his victory like a messiah who’s true form is made known only in the second coming which ushers in a new era of happiness. But let’s face it, Duterte is no savior.

The desire for change is always construed as novelty without consideration that some things take time or that the inter-generational poverty we suffer from for centuries cannot be broken in six years. Of course there are some things that should gone like botched police and military operations, unjust Yolanda rehabilitation practices, inefficiencies in handling the energy crises and the selective implementation of agrarian reform in the country. But there are some practices and programs that are best continued. The Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program and the Bottom-up Budgeting Program are examples of this. The flaws in these programs are operational and can easily be repaired with tweaks. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.This practice would remain entrenched as long as favors given in election are to be repaid by favors when already in office. To be sure, the President-elect has appointed brilliant cabinet members such as Prof. Judy Taguiwalo but there are also those who we will be better off when they are private citizens. We lose policy consistency, technical know-how and institutional memory when everyone and everything are replaced all the time.

We should be dismantling political dynasties and private armies, we should be strengthening the party system and we should be passage the Freedom of Information Bill. But how can we expect these to pass a congress where these are inimical to their interest?

Second, it has become very difficult to rely on our systems of checks and balances as a line of defense against attacks on democratic institutions and rights. When congress flock to whatever the party of the president is, how can we expect any respectable opposition in congress? Democracy is the best form of government when the decision of duly elected leaders are open to scrutiny and consequently, changes. Rodrigo Duterte seems to be uninterested in that, venting threats left and right against his detractors. It seems their camp believe that only theirs is the correct path and any one else with alternative views are either maliciously wrong or stupid. The ruling liberal party is not a shadow of its former self because the balimbings have left. The executive is so powerful in itself because all executive power is vested on one person, it is even made more powerful because the dispersed legislative power flock to this individual. How can the threat of impeachment keep the commander-in-chief in line if those who are chosen to wield this power are like bamboos shifting with the wind? Perhaps, parties here in the country are mere vehicles of resources than aggregations due to ideological agreement. It is imperative that we hold congress by the same standards we hold the President. We should be dismantling political dynasties and private armies, we should be strengthening the party system and we should be passage the Freedom of Information Bill. But how can we expect these to pass a congress where these are inimical to their interest?

Third, our government is decentralized because it gave considerable powers to local government units. However, these units are usually out of the limelight especially in mainstream media outlets. The LGUs are given these powers because it is believed that their proximity would inspire accountability mechanisms and apt development projects. We need to develop a lot of civil society groups that engage with mayors, councilors and governors to make sure that they don’t enjoy unlimited powers in their areas of jurisdiction. Ours is not a medieval society where pieces of land are controlled as fiefs and the powers of the nobility are unchecked. As a democratic society, the officials should be beholden to the best interest of the people and not of their own pockets. It is naive to expect them to do that on their own.

One final thing: Attributing deficient mental faculties to Duterte supporters is just plain wrong. It’s an easy explanation but it is wrong. People are tired of politics-as-usual and when someone new presented himself, the people quickly grasped the opportunity. Duterte is a symptom of a larger problem: that the state has been captured by elite interests and does not genuinely represent in toto, the people. It is not that government is a monolithic evil. It’s that personal good intentions matter little in an arena where the practice is dysfunctional and where there are no lines of defense against injustice. When the government is run like a private family business, where the lives of the poor are cheap and when disasters are met with coldness, people will look for alternatives. Our place is to be vigilant. Duterte is only president for six years but we are citizens for life, airing concerns and grievances is a civic duty not limited to the national level.

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