Discussing Duterte: What’s missing?


No doubt about it: Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential run is turning out to be one of the most hotly contested topics of the 2016 elections. His candidacy has opened up a Pandora’s Box of evils we have had to live with but have not been adequately brought to the fore—the evils of a failed democratic system on one hand, and that of martial rule on the other; of the womanizing and cussing of someone who wants to be in power, versus the immoral behaviour and hypocrisy of those who already are.

At least, that is how much of the media and public discussion on Duterte is being framed. Indeed, some of the discussion has been good: Duterte’s run has been called a “giant wake-up kick,” and has spurred other presidential candidates to talk about issues they have been silent on before, such as human rights (though Mar Roxas and administration officials risked being called hypocrites for the hundreds of unresolved extrajudicial killings under President Aquino—and called hypocrites they were). Unfortunately, however, the discussion is still lacking for all of us who deserve real change—no matter the presidential candidate we choose to support, or if we choose to support anyone at all. Most of it is still based on illusions, assumptions, and sensationalism that follow the man of the hour.

Let us begin with how Duterte finally declared his candidacy. He said that he only did so because he cannot stomach the possibility of an “American” citizen (referring to Grace Poe) as president. First of all, he disappointed those who wanted him to become the opposition to Aquino’s “Daang Matuwid,” and not attack the opposition. But of course, it is unsurprising behaviour—politicians tend to attack those whom they think are the biggest threat to their ambitions (Poe), and not those who actually are currently the biggest threat to the people (Roxas, who stands for the unabashed continuity of Aquino’s already proven rule of elitism and corruption).

For indeed, make no mistake about it, Duterte is a highly skilled politician—that is, someone who knows the rules of the game and plays it well. This article by Davao Today, The Rise and Rise of Rodrigo Duterte, provides us a glimpse of just how well he played it in Davao City to perpetuate himself in power. In fact, he plays the game so well he has managed to make it appear as if he has subverted the rules of traditional politics. Standard presidentiables bank on the line promise-the-Filipino-people-the-sun-and-the-moon-win-the-elections-then-stab-them-in-the-back. Duterte is banking on the line promise-the-Filipino-people-nothing-win-the-elections-kill-criminals-then-go-to-jail. And it seems to work so far. No matter what one thinks of the man, his popularity is an indictment of the usual ways of trapos—hence, the aura of “change.”

But concerned with Duterte’s unconventional ways, the media didn’t ask the most obvious question underlying his sudden declaration of candidacy: who has finally committed to him, financially? He himself has said it repeatedly before—without money, he cannot possibly win. In October, Duterte boasted that big businessmen have offered to back him up, but swore he will not accept campaign money from businessmen or other political backers. Few are naïve enough to believe the latter to be true. But even fewer seem to think the promise as significant—except that it is, if we are to talk about damning the oligarchy (as Duterte supporters believe him to be doing) and therefore, real change.

There is much lively discussion on Duterte’s methods for dealing with criminality. However, much of it is focused on whether or not Davao City is in a list of the safest or most dangerous cities, which is kind of missing the point. Even granting that an “iron fist” rule may have some criminals think twice, most street criminals—especially drug users—do not think even think straight, pushed as they are into desperate circumstances by extreme poverty. Crime is just a manifestation of a socially unjust society; it is hardly the root of it. It is also taken for granted that those who have been killed by Davao’s infamous death squad are all indeed hardened criminals who “deserve” the bullet. Human Rights Watch has documented that victims have also been minors, victims of mistaken identity, even those involved in personal spats with authorities.

Of course, many have reacted strongly against Duterte’s open sanction of such legal shortcuts. Some of them say that the threat of a Duterte “dictatorship” is all the more a challenge to show that our so-called democratic institutions work. Mar Roxas joins the bandwagon to say that the system works; it just needs more time. What has been left out, though, is first, the acknowledgement that the system has not worked—hell, it has not even taught our children properly about the horrors of martial rule. Aquino, who also rode on a clamor for change during the 2010 elections, is just the latest catastrophic example of how deeply ingrained oppression and exploitation is in Philippine society. Secondly, that it is precisely the failure of this system that has caused the rise of Duterte—thus, his supporters cannot simply be dismissed as “thugs” or “delusional or lazy.” Many of Duterte’s supporters are ordinary Filipinos who cannot wait for the “good effects” of the same old policies to come trickling down (because if they do, they will die waiting). So they have placed their bets on someone apparently willing to kill for them, even if it is unclear who or what exactly will be eliminated.

More so, not all supporters are even rooting for martial rule. In fact, some are willing to overlook the dictatorial tendencies in Duterte, saying that these are only assumptions—fueled by his political opponents and the media as well, which either does not understand his sarcasm (e.g. stories on 1,700 EJKs), sensationalizes or distorts what he says (e.g. stories on the 1 a.m. curfew, which Inday Sara Duterte clarified to only pertain to a liquor ban). They claim to support Duterte more for what they believe is his vision to develop the countryside—which naturally attracts voters from all major, still agriculturally backward islands, as well as Metro Manila residents who are tired of congestion and urban poverty.

But again, discussion on Duterte’s proposal for it—federalism—has been less than thorough. By itself, it is doubtful that federalism will solve systemic problems. The Center for People’s Empowerment and Governance released a critique of it in 2008, when moves to change the 1987 Constitution were underway under the Arroyo government. “The so-called ‘redistribution’ of powers and resources from the central government to federal, self-ruling states will not dissolve but will in fact strengthen the power of the local oligarchs allowing them to lord over their respective fiefdoms at will. Except to say that LGUs or federal states – which will continue to be under the domain of the oligarchs anyway – will be benefited, the proposals for federalism are silent on whether power redistribution will in fact lead to grassroots democracy under which the people will have greater access to governance and public resources,” Cenpeg said.

Indeed, more questions that pertain to basic reforms need to be raised—not just with Duterte, but other candidates as well who are now also claiming “countryside development.” And no, basic reforms does not simply pertain to increasing the allocation of LGUs and building more infrastructure from money borrowed from foreign creditors—all these things have been done before, and have failed to end crushing poverty and economic backwardness (and thus, its hated corollaries, crime and corruption).

If we are serious about change, the questions we need to ask candidates are the truly radical ones: Will they dismantle large tracts of lands owned by landlords and give land, subsidy, and market protection to farmers? Will they stop big mining companies from robbing our country of our much-needed natural resources? Will they create large national industries that can give secure jobs and just wages to Filipino workers? Will they reverse the privatization of social services so that health and education can be accessible? Will they regulate the prices of basic utilities such as water, electricity and oil? Will they pursue peace talks with rebel movements in earnest by tackling social and economic reforms? Will they stand for national sovereignty and end decades of mendicancy and subservience to the US?

It is doubtful that any of them will say a resounding yes to most of these questions, much less actually carry them out. A qualified yes to one or two, perhaps, is the best that they have done so far—for instance, both Poe and Duterte’s stand against contractualization of workers. Truth be told, the presidential seat has never been won or retained by anyone who stood in the way or did not have the support of big businessmen and landlords. Already, just by becoming a frontrunner, Duterte has come under pressure from business groups, who are demanding that he make “policy commitments” that would “court broad-based business support and mitigate any downside from continuity risk”—in other words, continue the failed economic policies of “Daang Matuwid.”

Be that as it may, it is still useful to ask for basic reforms and categorical stands on people’s issues from all candidates who claim to stand for “change”—otherwise, what will they be made to account for if thrust into power? To let discussion be confined to sensational mudslinging and insults between supporters, and to let candidates get away with talking only about peripheral issues that mask long-standing and structural inequalities is to lower the standards for change that we expect from government—and with evil policies that have caused us so much suffering as a people, we deserve much, much more.

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