Duterte’s socialist experiment
A coalition government with the Communist Party of the Philippines has been proposed by presumptive President-elect Rodrigo Duterte with an offer of at least four Cabinet portfolios—agrarian reform, social welfare, environment and natural resources, and labor. Thanking his former student for the “magnanimous offer,” exiled CPP founding chair Jose Maria Sison politely declined the Cabinet positions, clarifying, however, that the offer would be studied seriously.
Duterte’s flirtation with Left politics began when he was a member of the Kabataang Makabayan and Bayan. As mayor of Davao City, he staked his political career by accommodating the New People’s Army, and backing a ban on US armed exercises in the metropolis. Through the Marxist lens, it is more accurate to cast him as socialist-leaning and a nationalist with an unqualified sympathy for the poor. In words easily grasped by the public during media briefings, he promises to curb corruption by cutting red tape, establishing a civil service that renders prompt service and courtesy, removing “discretionary funds,” and cutting expenditures, including barangay junket “seminars.”
Duterte’s proposed coalition with the Left differs from the European norm where coalition regimes are transacted by opposing political parties for lack of a dominant political party. Forged by compromise, these power-sharing coalitions eventually turn fractious because of incoherent policies and strategies.
In this case, the Cabinet posts are being offered even as Duterte and his advisers know that the underground Left’s agenda of revolutionary reforms seek to alter the power structures in the country—dislodging the ruling oligarchs and financial elite and building a people’s coalition government. The posts at stake are as strategic and critical as they involve social services, employment, land reform, and protecting the environment from development aggression. In short, they serve as key platforms for initiating basic social and economic reforms with socialist paradigms—issues that previous pro-elite regimes failed to address.
Offering the “hand of peace” to the Left as well as other cause-driven rebel forces, Duterte anchors his incoming administration on a healing presidency with a program of national unity, peace and development. He will lead and micromanage a hard-fist antidrugs and anticrime campaign, but national security will lose steam without a peace agreement signed with the Left and capped by comprehensive social, economic, and political reforms for a just and lasting peace. A negotiated political settlement that will accommodate a progressive agenda opens the possibility of an alliance between Duterte and the Left, which may even solidify his socialist orientation.
In fact, the offer of Cabinet posts to the CPP reveals a Duterte ready to embrace the party’s national democratic program with a socialist perspective. Others may interpret it as an attempt to coopt the Left by using the peace process as a ploy for capitulation. But the presumptive president-elect seems to know better than that.
It’s too soon to predict whether the mulled coalition government will work. However, Duterte’s planned first moves as president converges with the Left agenda—an end to labor contractualization, rebuilding the national steel industry en route to industrialization, and tax reform, among others.
In principle, a true coalition government must include forming parallel coalition councils at the local levels. The support that Duterte expects from the Left in helping administer government affairs can be enhanced by a broad progressive movement’s representation in the local governments. The basic social and economic reforms of a Duterte presidency should be grounded where community-based change-movers have long been struggling for grassroots empowerment. These are the change forces that no Cabinet secretaries or political and business supporters of Duterte can promise. The progressive movement can, and a reform agenda needs a strong and nationwide mass movement as a political backbone and development force.
Which brings us to the important questions: If the Left comes on board, how will Duterte be able to balance and rein in a government of incongruent political forces—the Left armed with a progressive ideology and rightist groups representing neoliberal and pro-elite interests? How will basic disagreements on policies and strategies be reconciled to assemble a coherent six-year program? How, indeed, will expected resistance from the elite and diehard anticommunist elements be handled?
The answer lies in the outcome of the peace process. Negotiations with the National Democratic Front, which were stalled in 2013, promise to rectify past mistakes of not honoring 10 peace agreements, with both sides now expected to accelerate the process as speedily as possible. The outcome of these talks will shape the final configuration of the coalition government and to what extent Duterte is determined to support it.
Duterte understands the political influence of the armed Left—the extensive guerrilla zones they operate in countless barrios all over the country and now under revolutionary councils. Past regimes failed to defeat the NPA because of its mass base support and also due to the government’s inability to address the roots of rebellion.
Both Duterte and the Left will need mutual support and cooperation to sustain what may turn out to be the country’s first socialist experiment. The coming weeks will be crucial.
Bobby M. Tuazon teaches at the University of the Philippines and is CenPEG’s director for policy studies.