Duterte’s “swan song”; going forward with reforms
Posted by CenPEG, 07 August 2021


The month of July unfolded with almost a daily dose of reports regarding leading political figures’ plans for the May 2022 national and local elections. These were happening as the Philippine Congress resumed session to listen to President Duterte’s last State of the National Address (SONA) and as the country braced for another round of lockdowns in the midst of an upsurge of Covid-19 cases in the National Capital Region (NCR) and other cities and provinces.

Talking to the nation on July 26, Duterte called his last SONA a “swan song” – a final act before he bows out from the presidency in June 2022. Many Filipinos do not buy this retirement “swan song” since the 76-year-old president may yet run in the 2022 elections as vice president, an option deemed as unconstitutional. That said, his real “swan song” may as well be his retraction of a Feb. 2020 decision to terminate the 1999 US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in a meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at Malacañang (the presidential palace) on July 29.

SONA 2021

Like previous annual SONAs since the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986), Duterte’s final act was met with protest rallies a few kilometres from the legislative complex and elsewhere and joined by progressive and opposition forces and activists from the left, center, and right of the political spectrum ending with the traditional burning of the president’s giant effigy. The alternative SONA was replicated in other cities across the country.

Around the same time, various political and sectoral groups held their own alternative SONA to appraise the Duterte government’s performance since 2016. In a two-part series of a virtual public forum titled 13th State of the Presidency (SOP), the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) critiqued the five years of the Duterte presidency (2016-2021) based on policies and acts pertaining to the following: leadership and governance; state of the economy; public health and the pandemic crisis; human rights and anti-terrorism; state of the media; and foreign policy.

In the public forum, CenPEG decribed the Duterte presidency as “strongman-authoritarian” rule that evolved from the “Boss-Mayor” mentality and practice when the president was Davao City mayor for more than 20 years. At the national level of his presidency, his strongman-authoritarian tendencies were enabled by protracted socio-economic crises, a feudalistic political culture, weak state capacity and weak political institutions like the Congress, the Judiciary, other constitutional bodies, and including political parties.

Failures of the presidency such as the drug war and anti-corruption were the result of a tendency to apply oversimplified responses to problems that are complex and large scale and require cognitive expertise. Duterte’s over-reliance on his Davao-Mindanao linked allies including fraternity brothers, fellow law alumni, as well as the military and police institutions shut the doors to professionalism, competence and accountability that should have been marshalled to effectively grapple with the complexities of socio-economic problems, drug trafficking and the pandemic crises, among other national problems.

Economy, Human Rights and Antiterrorism

In the economy, Duterte continued the policies of his two predecessors – Gloria M. Arroyo and Benigno SA Aquino III – which largely underplayed the need to strengthen the country’s economic fundamentals such as manufacturing and agriculture. Undeveloped for seven decades, agriculture and manufacturing dipped continuously with a sharp plummet in 1½ years of the pandemic. Covid-19 exposed the vulnerability of the Philippine economy which has been propped up mainly by the remittances of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) that have fueled household spending, the main driver of the country’s economic growth.

Today, the Philippine president faces the likelihood of being investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC, The Hague) over crimes against humanity on account of his drug war that were allegedly committed during his Davao years as mayor until at least 2019 when he unilaterally withdrew the country from the 1998 Rome Treaty. In the CenPEG SOP, Duterte’s authoritarian rule continued the culture of impunity that began during the Marcos fascist years and which incited allegedly his police and military forces to commit large-scale human rights violations with repressive measures not only against drug suspects but also activists, rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and media institutions. Under question before the Supreme Court (SC), Duterte’s antiterrorism act (Dec. 2020) has been assailed by lawyers and rights groups as a coercive mechanism out to silence government critics reminiscent of the Marcos martial rule on the pretext of fighting insurgency and Muslim militants.

Foreign Policy

For all of Duterte’s verbal wrath against the US, the Philippines remains in the shadow of its former colonial master. During the July 29 visit by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at Malacañang, Duterte retracted his Feb. 2020 unilateral decision to terminate the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US. This latest twist in Duterte’s unpredictability underscored his tendency to bow to the wishes of his defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana and the military establishment, and foreign affairs secretary, Teodoro Locsin, Jr., to stand squarely on the side of the US with a view that VFA is a deterrent to China’s perceived assertiveness regarding its historical claims in the South China.

With Duterte’s announcement that “the VFA is in full force again and that there is no letter of termination pending”, the administration is expected to resume US-Philippine joint sea-land war exercises and, under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the prepositioning of weapons and equipment on Philippine military sites.

This development affirms the CenPEG SOP’s argument finding Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” a farce and concluding that US-Philippine defense alliance is as rock-solid as ever. This places the Duterte administration – at least in the remaining 11 months of its term – under increasing pressure to support US President Biden’s “pivot to Asia 2” that aims to tighten the US military encirclement of China. This poses a challenge to China’s and the Philippines’ previous efforts to resolve bilateral issues using the diplomatic dialog mechanism which both countries established in 2017. Eleven months may be short but is still enough for the US to step up its presence in the Philippines as the former increases its naval operations in the South China Sea and throughout the Indo-Pacific Ocean.

Such triumph clinched by the US in the light of Duterte’s symbolic embrace of America is critical as far as the Biden administration is concerned and gives rise to speculation that the US – as it has done for the past 70 years – will once more take a strong interest in the Philippines’ May 2022 elections. Such interest is driven by an imperative that the next president should be friendly to the US thus favouring the latter’s security interests not only in the country but in the region as well. The US is expected to play to the hilt such interventionist policy to ensure that the new administration will back the security objectives of the Pentagon in the whole Southeast Asian region. This month US state and defense officials have taken rounds of trips in the region to rebuild their alliance system and make sure allies acted cohesively behind American belligerent policies particularly on China.

Prospective Presidentiables in the May 2022 Elections

The first presidential and vice-presidential ticket who announced in July their intention to run is that of Sen. Panfilo “Ping” M. Lacson, Sr. and Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III. Lacson, 73, is a former police chief under the deposed President Joseph E. Estrada and Sotto, 72, is a popular TV host-comedian who was elected senate president in 2018. Lacson ran for president but lost in 2014 under the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP, Aquino wing) while Sotto, who is running for vice president, is identified with the Nationalist Peoples’ Coalition (NPC) and which is now affiliated with the regional Hugpong ng Pagbabago (party for change) which was founded by now Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte-Carpio.

On July 29, Lacson took his oath as chairman of the Partido para sa Demokratikong Reporma (or Partido Reporma, party for democratic reform) before its founder, former Defense Secretary Renato de Villa. Ousted House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, formerly of the ruling party PDP-Laban, is the president. The Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), one of the traditional mainstream political parties founded by Marcos crony, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, now deceased, is said to be holding talks with Partido Reporma for a possible electoral alliance.

Lacson, one of the main authors of the contentious Anti-Terrorism Law, is for stronger US-Philippines defense partnership and has called for a review of Philippine-China relations.

Lacson’s past record as a loser in the 2004 presidential elections with just 11 percent of the votes against the winning candidate, Gloria M. Arroyo, who got 40 percent, poses a question regarding his winning chances in the 2022 elections. He will also be publicly scrutinized over his poor human rights record in the light of his involvement as a young officer during the Marcos dictatorship as well as in his stint as director general of the Philippine National Police (PNP) under Estrada.

On the other hand, he is believed to have a reputation not easily swayed by corruption and has not claimed any million-peso pork barrel that is usually allocated by the national government for legislators in order to cement its hold on Congress. In the elections, Lacson can count on the possible support of the Filipino-Chinese community whom he as police chief had shielded from kidnap-for-random syndicates with some celebrated cases solved. Professing to idolize Marcos, the senator shows the making of another strongman or authoritarian leader which may not sit well with activists and rights defenders.

Sotto, a TV actor, host and comedian for 60 years, is a household name, and will surely bring a formidable popular vote to his and Lacson’s candidacy. A former Quezon City vice mayor, Sotto has served four terms as a senator. He is considered a conservative on social issues for opposing measures on reproductive health and women’s rights and for supporting the revival of the death penalty for high-level drug trafficking.


Fissures Among Presidential and Vice Presidential Candidates

Both the traditional opposition Liberal Party (LP) and the 1Sambayan (one nation), a loose electoral coalition of diverse political forces and personalities, share a common advocacy for a united “opposition” candidate for president. Time is not on their side, however, as until today not one from the anti-Duterte opposition has risen to fill this void.

Till now, the traditional opposition LP is counting on Vice President Leni Robredo who has been trailing in public surveys on the most desired successor president. Some analysts attribute such low rating to her indecisiveness whether to join the race for the presidency. Reports indicate that Robredo is also being groomed to run for governor of Camarines Sur province – where she hails from – as a shoo-in candidate for dislodging the Villafuertes who have lorded over the local politics for 50 years. All these mean that Robredo, also a former congresswoman, and her close advisers are still weighing where she will fit and where she is mostly likely to win.

Meanwhile, the anti-Duterte opposition camp’s united front strategy has been shaken by a warning on July 28 from former Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV that his Magdalo Party, which is allied with the LP, will drop Robredo if she gave way to Lacson for the presidency. Robredo was reported talking with Lacson, who is not in good terms with Trillanes, and Sotto about forging an alliance. This has made the LP-Magdalo alliance tenuous leaving Trillanes without LP support if he decides to run for president with Robredo opting out of the race.

Once this happens, the LP will have no candidate running for the presidency and will have to kiss goodbye its bid to recover from the party’s devastating defeats in the 2016 and 2019 elections.

In truth, public surveys on the next president show Robredo being outflanked by other possible aspirants especially the young, energetic and very visible mayor of the city of Manila, Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso. The high ratings of Isko Moreno, a former matinee idol, are one reason why a number of political forces including 1Sambayan have approached him as a nominee for the office of the president. The 46-year-old Moreno, - “Yorme” (street slang for mayor) to his supporters - has reportedly turned down the offer saying that he is focused on governance affairs in Manila including fighting the pandemic which continues to strike fear among local residents. Assuming he can establish his mark as an achiever Moreno might test the waters for a national position in 2022.

Although Moreno has his own political party since 1998, Asenso Manileño, he has had other political affiliations – Nacionalista Party (2006-2010), United Nationalist Alliance (UNA, 2010-2014), Partido ng Masang Pilipino (PMP, 2014-2016), and National Unity Party (NUP, 2016 to present). That makes him no different from traditional politicians.

If popularity alone is a major asset for electing the new president, incumbent senator and boxing champ Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao, Sr. (Manny Pacquiao) can be a frontrunner. The rags-to-riches 42-year-old boxing champ once served as a congressman representing his home province, Sarangani, and was elected senator in 2016 under PDP-Laban, Duterte’s ruling party. He formed his own party, the “People’s Champ Movement,” in 2010.

At times exhorted by Duterte as “the next president,” Pacquiao was disowned this early July by PDP-Laban where he served as president after criticizing the chief executive on corruption issues and for being soft to China on the West Philippine Sea issue. Apparently, his public criticisms came out on the heels of reports about his interest in the presidency cutting a political figure that the more he attacks the incumbent president the greater his chances of winning in 2022. That may have been ill-advised: Recent surveys show that Pacquiao’s disapproval rating has gone up.

A school dropout before becoming a boxer, Pacquiao earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Makati in Dec. 2019 triggering a public rebuke about his qualifications. The university had to explain that his degree was validated by the Expanded Tertiary Education Equivalency and Accreditation Program (ETEEAP) of the Philippine Councilors League-Legislative Academy (PCCLA) which allows qualified Filipinos to complete a collegiate-level education through informal education system.
He also earned the ire of the LGBTQ community for calling same-sex marriage as “worse than animal” prompting Nike, one of his major sponsors, and an American mall to drop their partnership with the boxer.

The second richest member of the Senate, billionaire Pacquiao has courted other political controversies including being a perennial absentee since his stint in the lower House and for being a traditional turncoat by switching political parties since entering politics.

In sum, only Robredo can claim to be coming from the anti-Duterte traditional opposition camp. The rest of the prospective presidential aspirants are either actually aligned with the president or have affiliated with other dominant political parties. Except possibly for Lacson and Moreno, all the prospective presidential aspirants come from political families. And it would be highly interesting to see whether the 2022 elections may yet turn out to be contest of dynastic and non-dynastic candidates.

Dutertes Forever?

It is too early to conjecture whether Inday Sara, a most likely administration bet for the presidency, will win thus ensuring the continuity of the Dutertes who as a political family have dominated Davao politics since the 1960s.

Restrained by her own father, Rodrigo Duterte, from running for president Davao City Mayor Inday Sara Duterte-Carpio cannot deny the existence of a Sara for President movement since last year. Administration politicians and Duterte supporters strongly believe that a win by Inday Sara in the May 2022 elections is the only way for continuing Duterte’s policies and achievements. Still the overarching belief among them is that her candidacy will prevent any fissures or factionalism within the ruling party, PDP-Laban. Any split triggered by Inday Sara’s non-candidacy and other party figures pursuing separate ways as they gun for the presidency will allow the opposition or other candidates unaligned with PDP-Laban for a power takeover.

Still, if Inday Sara chooses to run for the presidency, her allies should contend with a vulnerability right in the Dutertes’ turf - Mindanao - where the Hugpong-Del Rosario ticket for provincial positions in Davao del Norte were all soundly defeated in the 2019 elections by the team led by former House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez.

Going Forward with Reforms

In the SOP, CenPEG averred that whatever will be the outcome of the 2022 elections, the next administration is certain to face continuing risks, challenges and opportunities. Given the failures of the Duterte regime – which undeniably have deep institutional roots – the next administration has an opportunity to right the wrongs ensuing from bad governance and erroneous policies and begin the process of undertaking doable reforms by taking approaches radically different from those proven to be fatal under the Duterte and previous presidencies. It is understood that such doable reforms cannot even be tried without the active intervention and participation of the civil society, NGOs, and other forces long marginalized and demonized under the Duterte administration. In many respects, these progressive forces with mass-based constituencies should take the lead to make people-centered changes and reforms possible.

The reforms should include reinstituting the constitutionally-enshrined system of check and balance and accountability whose weaknesses enabled authoritarian rule to prevail unrelentingly. The mindset that gave the military and police institutions full rein in implementing measures to problems that are so complex for their deep and systemic socio-economic roots such as drug trafficking and corruption should be retired. In its place, professionalism, competence, and accountability should be allowed to play both at the policy and implementation levels.

New economic strategies should take the lead to replace policies driven by neoliberalism that has long been nullified by the extreme poverty, massive unemployment, and other maladies seen in the Philippines and other developing countries. Economic foundation should be rebuilt with massive state support for boosting agriculture and manufacturing – pillars of economic fundamentals.

Instead of repression, the media including alternative press should be protected and treated as partners rather than enemies in democracy-building.

Finally, Congress should start doing their work by legislating as well as overseeing, for instance, a review of the Philippines’ foreign policy most especially US-Philippines defense relationship as the first step toward initiating a new constructive diplomacy to make the country a friend to all nations and enemy to none. This correct path can be taken only by making sure that foreign policy, rather than promoting the security interests of some foreign powers, should serve the country’s national interest first and foremost. #


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