December 12, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Sociopolitical reform under President Duterte

IN THE 2016 presidential elections, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte proved to be the compelling choice, thanks, in no small part, to his strong sociopolitical agenda.

At the heart of this agenda was his fervent stance against China’s territorial encroachment, bureaucratic reform, and the promise to eradicate illegal narcotics and criminality within three months. As the Duterte administration approaches its first anniversary, we assess his performance in these fronts.

This is a second part of a series, the first installment of which assessed the President’s performance in managing the economy.

China’s intrusion on Philippine sovereign territories is as much a sensitive subject today as it was during the campaign. In no uncertain terms, (then) presidential candidate Duterte committed to defend Philippine territorial claims at all costs. We still recall how he planned to use a jet ski to plant the Philippine flag on Scarborough Shoal. However absurd the metaphor may have been, the message was clear -- he was to fight for what is ours, if elected.

One year into his presidency and the ardent assertion of sovereignty seems to have taken a 180-degree turn. In a two-step punch, he announced an end to our century-old alliance with the United States and threatened to abrogate the mutual defense treaty between our nations. Although the abrogation never materialized, the President nevertheless ordered to minimize joint military exercises with the US and prohibited US warships from using Philippine military bases.

Simultaneously, he turned to Beijing with a charm offensive like no other. With much flurry and flair, he sought to make China the Philippine’s principal economic ally and an ideological partner against western democracies. The diplomatic re-calibration has since been known as “The Pivot to China.”

Cozy relations with Beijing caused Malacañang to keep mum about our sovereign claims in international fora.

Later on, the President announced that he will not (and cannot) stop China from building structures on the disputed Panatag Shoal. Neither was he going to press on with the decision of the United Nation’s Arbitral Tribunal when it ruled that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea.

President Duterte appears to have handed Philippine sovereign territory to China on a silver platter. However, I would like to think that there is a strategic reason behind it all outside sheer resentment of the United States. I have narrowed it down to two possibilities.

The first is for practical reasons.

Realizing that the Philippines has neither the military might nor the military support of America to assert its territorial claims, the next best thing is to make a “friend” out of China for economic benefit. On top of gaining access to China’s immense market for Philippine commodities and manufactures, we stand to benefit from a flow of foreign direct investments and official development assistance. China has already “rewarded” the President’s gesture of friendship with ODA’s worth some $4 billion to finance Malacañang’s infrastructure program. It must be said, however, that Chinese ODAs come with interest rates nearly three times more than that of the Japanese. Nothing is for free.

The second possibility is for strategic reasons.

President Duterte considers the era of American dominance as nearing its end. To him, the world of tomorrow will have China as its overriding power, be it in the realm of commerce, military might, or diplomacy. That said, aligning with the up-and-coming and not the old-and-waning will serve the country’s best interest.

Only time will tell if the economic benefits realized by the pivot to China will be worth the price our children must pay. History has taught is that nations with expansionist ambitions cannot be trusted. This, we must not forget. Hence, it will bode well for the President to deal with China with both trepidation and an arms length distance.

During the campaign, Mr. Duterte vowed to establish a government with empathy. He committed to shun partisan politics and instead, build a bureaucracy based on professionalism and meritocracy. This was the only way we could realize a government truly responsive to the needs of the people, he said.

Unfortunately, the President’s succeeding actions betrayed his declamation. Not a few foreheads crinkled when friends, classmates, and rabid allies were appointed to key government positions despite their obvious lack of credentials. Sure, there are good appointees like Secretaries Mon Lopez of the DTI and Ernesto Pernia of NEDA -- but there are also brazen political accommodations like Cesar Montano and Mocha Uson who are in over their heads. Lamentably, the bureaucracy is chock-full of this sort, albeit of less famous personalities.

Appointing officials based on loyalty, not ability, is a cancer to the bureaucracy. Not only does it undermine meritocracy, it justifies ineptitude in public service. Worse, political appointees are wont to prioritize the interests of their political patron rather than the common good. It is a breeding ground for graft. Political accommodations weaken our institutions as it cultivates a culture of feudal command.

Bureaucratic reform, in the first year of the Duterte administration, has fallen short on the promise.

The war on illegal narcotics has had many breakthroughs but with tremendous social costs. It is a complex issue that requires a thorough explanation. We will save this for another day.

However, statistics show much improvement in as far as the state of criminality is concerned.

Data from the Philippine National Police show that incidents of criminality have dropped 53% across the archipelago -- from 117,508 cases in the last year of the Aquino administration to 54,817 incidents today. Cases of murder and homicide have been reduced by 12% to 10,165 cases, theft and robbery dropped by 57% to just 39,899 cases and carnapping by 61% to only 4,753 cases.

A 53% drop in criminality over one year is a remarkable feat. However, it is bellied by the President’s promise to eliminate it completely over three to six months. This is where the problem lies.

The President talked big during the campaign trail and after, promising sweeping improvements, populist reforms and unrealistic goals. It was much applauded but unfortunately, not calculated nor realistic.

If we judge the Duterte administration’s performance in these three aspects of sociopolitical reform, based on its own targets, it fails to pass muster. However, if it were to be benchmarked against the performance of past administrations, the improvement in criminality puts it at par.

Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.