President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is no bland figure. He elicits strong passions and reactions.
To his critics, he’s a mad monster; a killer and wanton violator of human rights; a coarse, sexist, immoral foul-mouthed man; a Chinese ass-licker and traitor; and a leader whose wild, impulsive decisions are driven by Fentanyl. To his admirers, however, he’s a revolutionary; the simple-living, profanity-speaking Everyman; a fighter of the Manila-based oligarchy with a damn-the-torpedoes approach.
Who is he really? Is he Dr. Jekyl or Mr. Hyde?
The truth is probably somewhere in between. He’s certainly unconventional by historical standards. After one year, these are my impressions of him:
1. He’s a Rip Van Winkle who slept during the early seventies.
He still idolizes Communist Party of the Philippines’ founder Jose Ma. Sison, who was his professor, and the Left, which had captured the people’s imagination during those times. (Remember when NPA meant “Nice People Around?”) Perhaps this is why he keeps persisting on the peace talks, even if the CPP and NPA are taking political and military advantage of those peace talks.
He has fond memories of martial law, perhaps of its early years, when discipline was the norm and the human rights abuses and crony capitalism hadn’t yet revealed themselves. Perhaps this is why he was so quick to declare martial law during the Marawi siege, thinking this could be the panacea to society’s ills as it had seemed then.
He seems to have slept through globalization, the feminist movement, the rise of human rights as fundamental to a liberal global order, the concept of institutions and the rule of law, and data-driven, evidence-based decision-making.
2. He’s a mayor from a city in faraway Mindanao who became president.
His experience, his world-view, and his impulses as a mayor of Davao shape how he runs the national government. An analyst called him “Mayor of the Philippines.” I had said “Peter Principle” in action.
As mayor, he didn’t have to deal with foreign affairs. He could scare and chase drug addicts out of the city and declare his anti-drug campaign a success. He could bend the small, local bureaucracy to his will. The vested interests and the power centers in the city were visible, manageable and uncomplicated.
He has brought his activist, can-do attitude when he came to Malacañang. However, as my fellow columnist Professor Noel de Dios wrote before the elections (but at the time, referring to former Vice-President Binay), a “city is not a country.”
The sledgehammer approach he used in Davao City has clearly not worked nationally, even if he promised to end the drug problem in six months. Justice Secretary Vitalinao Aguirre admits that the drug syndicates are back in action in the National Penitentiary and even the PNP Special Forces, who replaced the former jail guards, may have been compromised.
Dealing with the petty problems of Davao, President Duterte had no concept of institution-building. Thus, his primary instrument in the drug war, the Philippine National Police, is still not trusted by the public and unsurprisingly, has been associated with kidnapping, murder, extortion, and other heinous crimes. Worse, believing that bloody solutions are all that matter in the drug war, Duterte has reinstated PNP Superindent Marvin Marcos, the accused mastermind behind the rubout of the late Mayor Rolando Espinosa, Sr.
Moreover, his drug war, ineffective as it is, has cost the country in terms of international reputation, something which he didn’t have to deal with as a mayor.
3. His activist, can-do approach to government may have worked in Davao, but doesn’t in the national stage where the government and the bureaucracy are corrupt, inefficient, inept, and chockfull of vested interests.
He has compounded his problem by appointing many officials from a small circle of Davaoeños, San Beda Law fraternity, old friends, and die-hard supporters, a number of whom are clearly incompetent or worse, corrupt. He himself admitted this when he fired Mike Sueño from DILG, former Davao Councilor Peter Laviña from the National Irrigation Administration, and former Immigration Commissioners Al Algosino and Mark Robles for alleged corruption. But there are others, such as actor and Tourism Promotions Board head Cesar Montano and his Presidential Communications Office purveyors of fake news, whom he’s unwilling to confront and fire.
To his credit, President Duterte implicitly recognizes the problem. However, his simplistic solution will not work without institutional reform. Reaching out of his narrow circle, he has been appointing more ex-military officials to his government.
As of the latest count, there are about 55 ex-military men appointed to key positions, from ex-general Danilo Lim as MMDA head to ex-general Eduardo del Rosario as head of the National Housing Authority.
Again, it’s wrong for him to think that the ills of the bureaucracy can be fixed with a military approach. These ex-military officials may not have the specialized expertise for the job -- traffic management, for example, in MMDA -- and they may assume that the bureaucracy follows orders obediently like soldiers do, which it does not.
To my mind, Duterte’s biggest mistake with respect to his assumption of an effective government is his much-ballyhooed “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program. His government has shifted emphasis from Public Private Partnerships (PPP), where the private sector plays a major role in infrastructure-building toward more ODA and GAA-funded infrastructure, wherein the government is the lead or sole driver of projects.
I’m betting that his “Build, Build, Build” program will fail because President Duterte hasn’t fixed the ills of the bureaucracy and has let politics dictate the program. A transportation expert I talked to has said that the infrastructure program’s emphasis on railways is misguided. He confidently predicts that all of these projects will fail. He cites as an example the change in specification from narrow gauge to standard gauge for the Manila-Clark railway. That change in specification alone has delayed the project up to two years and is totally groundless. Furthermore, it will cost the government an additional P100 billion in additional right-of-way acquisition.
The transportation expert also said that the marking of stations up to Clark is funny because the government is far from starting construction. The Department of Transportation hasn’t made any detailed engineering from Malolos to Clark, much less acquired the right-of-way. That line is full of problematic squatters, according to him. Furthermore, the Department of Transportation doesn’t have its own right-of-way acquisition unit, but must depend on the overburdened staff of the Department of Public Works and Highways.
Another railway project he’s sure will fail is the Mindanao railway, phase one of which is the Tagum to Digos line. It’s funded out of the GAA or government budget. For one thing, he said that Mindanao’s mountainous topography doesn’t lend itself to railway projects.
For another thing, there’s very little commerce between Mindanao cities. All of their commerce is outward, either toward Manila or the export markets, he stated. But the Mindanao railway project was economically justified with dubious assumptions about cargo and passenger traffic. Clearly, the Mindanao railway was undertaken to make Mindanao politicians happy.
4. He can’t see what’s not in front of him.
Being mayor of Davao, he learned to be practical and be a problem-solver. However, this prevents him from seeing other relationships and connecting the dots. For example, he wanted to pivot foreign policy away from the United States, which had threatened him with sanctions, towards China and Russia. However, Russia is a middling economic power and its future is grim with declining oil prices, especially in the long term with the onset of electric cars and solar-powered batteries. It has no vital interest in the South China Sea, yet Duterte has made stronger relations with Russia an important focus of his foreign policy. On the other hand, while the Philippines may benefit economically with better relations with China, it may be sacrificing the principle of a rules-based international order by its meek stance on the South China Sea.
Yet another example is his willingness to alienate the European Union over its criticisms of his drug war. However, he must see beyond the EU’s criticisms because the Philippines would also need the EU not just for trade but to combat internationally-linked, ISIS-inspired terrorism in Mindanao.
It is wrong, however, to assume that the Duterte government will fail or will not survive just because of the Peter Principle. President Duterte does have some redeeming qualities compared to his predecessors, such as the following:
1. He appears not to be corrupt or to practice cronyism, unlike some of his predecessors. He doesn’t appear to threaten the oligarchy with his self-dealing or by extending favors for certain cronies. This will allow him to survive and thrive politically. There will be no oligarchic-funded moves to destabilize him, as there were during the times of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former President Joseph Estrada. This could be the reason why he enjoys high popularity numbers.
2. He’s not hard-headed.
He has shown his capacity to change his mind. One example of this is his turnaround on rice importation policy. Upon the instigation of National Food Authority administrator Jason Aquino and Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, he had impulsively fired Undersecretary Maria Chiara Valdez supposedly for allowing private sector importation of rice. However, his economic managers and Cabinet Secretary Jun Evasco finally convinced him that allowing the private sector, instead of the government, to import is more transparent, less corruption-prone, and will address an impending shortage of inventory during the lean season. Hence, the policy of no importation by the private sector was quietly reversed.
More examples abound. He had previously criticized the previous administration for purchasing jets, instead of helicopters. Apparently, he changed his mind when he later said that he will fund the importation of military jets both for external defense and for combating terrorists like the Maute gang.
On US military assistance, he had previously scorned it and even expressed a desire to eject American forces from Mindanao. However, confronted with the ISIS-inspired terrorist siege of Marawi, he has allowed the US to extend military assistance. He admitted the Philippine military is pro-US but said that it was okay with him, he who had cursed the United States and praised China. For a supposed authoritarian, he often gets contradicted by his inferiors.
3. He’s not against fundamental reform.
Unlike his predecessor, former President Aquino, who stubbornly refused to remove the foreign ownership restrictions in the Constitution and killed the efforts of his Speaker, former Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, to lift them, he’s not a reactionary. Civil society will have better chances to push for fundamental reform under his administration than under previous administrations. Moreover, he has a first-class economic team whom he clearly listens to.
That he appears not to be personally corrupt, that he’s not hard-headed and open to changing his mind, and that he’s not protecting any entrenched interest augur hope for him to change course and junk the dark aspects of his administration, from the simplistic, bloody solutions to the drug problem to the wrong turn in ODA and GAA-funded infrastructure projects.
The wild card here is President Duterte’s admitted frail health.
When former President Ferdinand Marcos became ill, his government started unravelling, with various power groups doing their own thing and jockeying for positions. Whatever time and attention President Duterte has, it’s being consumed by the national security threat of ISIS-linked terrorist groups like the Maute gang. Terrorism in Mindanao is a complex problem, with historical, ethnic, and religious causes that can’t easily be addressed. It has taken a dangerous and more complex turn with the linking of domestic Islamic-terrorism to international terrorist groups like ISIS. A sledgehammer approach won’t do and President Duterte is clearly struggling to respond.
President Duterte won on a campaign promise of “change is coming.” The country can only hope that change -- but for the better -- also applies to himself. With his first year in office behind him, the hope is that the experience of being president of an entire country, not just being mayor of a southern city, will evolve and grow the man.
Calixto V. Chikiamco is a board director of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis.