“What is happening to our country?” “Is there hope for the Philippines?”
I am again hearing these questions crop up increasingly in casual conversations. The first was famously attributed to the late former vice president Emmanuel Pelaez when he survived an ambush in July 1982—a period marked by spreading dissent against the excesses of the Marcos dictatorship. It has been a while since I last heard these questions asked around me with the same frequency I’m hearing them now. To me, they signal a growing feeling of frustration and helplessness at a situation seemingly getting out of hand. And events of the last week appear to dramatize quite well what is wrong. The Inquirer’s Sunday headline said it all: “A nation divided,” it said, on photographs of two opposing rallies in different parts of the city.
Those questions, when I hear them asked, are not necessarily coming from the side of the so-called “yellow army” or, even less likely, from those derisively branded as “Dutertards”—the groups representing opposite sides of the spectrum of sentiments Filipinos now have about the political state of the country. Rather, I’m hearing the questions asked by people who would identify with neither group, and could only witness the vicious exchange of words from the sidelines. But these people also largely believe that the Marcos years were among the darkest in Philippine history. The sense of frustration and hopelessness embodied in the questions is fueled in conversations on the outlook for the next presidential election in 2022, and when the prospect of yet another Marcos presidency is seen not to be remote. There’s no question that this prospect has been enhanced by acts and statements of the current President himself, who has made no secret of his admiration for the dictator—and this is where the divisiveness of his leadership seems most manifest.
Last September, I wrote hopefully, and perhaps too optimistically, of President Duterte’s potential to be a unifying, bridging leader. I cited his unique background as a longtime city mayor who kept close touch with those he governed, with his ear close to the ground in a hands-on style of leadership. I cited how surveys showed him as having had an unprecedented broad base of support spanning all socioeconomic classes and a wide range of geographic regions. Even with a minority 39 percent of the vote, he seemed uniquely positioned to be the leader behind whom Filipinos could all rally, the team captain to exhort us all to row our national boat in one direction (a favorite analogy of his predecessor and avowed mentor, Fidel V. Ramos). I expressed hope, as he neared completion of his first 100 days in office then, that he could still evolve (translation: change) into this unifying role, provided he would acknowledge how vitally important it is that he does. It would require his acceptance that his position demands statesmanship and a leadership that builds bridges rather than widens gaps among Filipinos, and with the foreign community. Filipinos who still give him a positive approval rating, still comprising the majority today (at least according to the surveys), probably expect (or hope) that he can still evolve into that mold.
Eight months into his presidency, I feel that hope slipping away fast. He has been quoted as declaring that he neither intends nor aspires to be a statesman. It doesn’t help that his new counterpart across the Pacific is no less divisive, and even more flamboyantly so. Reinforced by some equally divisive characters in his Cabinet, President Duterte is getting us nowhere toward bridging our society’s deep political divides. It has become quite evident that a bridging kind of leadership will not happen within his watch. Even FVR, seen as instrumental in getting the former Davao City mayor to run for the highest office, has become rather critical of his divisive leadership.
We are, indeed, a country divided. Good economic fundamentals notwithstanding, our deepening societal divisions will in due time undermine our economic prospects, and with it, our people’s general welfare. I cannot help but echo: Is there hope for the Philippines?
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