What could have been done
President Duterte’s first year has given us a glimpse of what’s in store for the rest of his term.
He started off with action points such as restoring public trust in the government, forging an independent foreign policy, ending labor contractualization, and strengthening peace and security. For all the braggadocio in his promises, the war on drugs stands out as the most relentless. It shows how he looks at an issue, sets policies, and uses a mode of enforcement. Drug use is a social and health issue with deep economic roots, allowing the trade in illegal drugs to thrive. He disdains a multipronged approach that prioritizes a strong antipoverty track backed by health science and effective rehabilitation in drug-infested areas, and relies instead on the tainted police force and an iron hand.
But poverty reduction is ill-defined under the President’s neoliberal economic agenda that only serves to worsen income disparity and unemployment. Foreign investments, grants and loans are earmarked mainly for infrastructure projects in which big companies, including those who backed his election campaign, play a key role. According to economist Joseph Anthony Lim, the government has not paid attention to “regional disparities and highly skewed income distribution.” Key infrastructures for economic and social services should be built in poor areas and local economies jump-started “to provide quality jobs and skills” for the poor, Lim said at the 9th State of the Presidency forum sponsored by CenPEG (Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance). The policy on solving economic and social deprivation “is very weak, compared to the…force and vigilantism in the antidrug war and the war against terrorism,” Lim said.
To put the government in order and address the Moro issue, Mr. Duterte wants a shift to federalism that, he envisions, will enhance local productivity and bring bigger revenues to 15 autonomous states. But the project puts the cart before the horse. Federalism will only work under a strong party system and program-based elections, which are hardly present in a country ruled by oligarchs. Touted as a “constitutional reform,” federalism will only seal local oligarchs’ hold on power that has allowed them to steal development resources at public expense.
Mr. Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” is overblown. It lacks the political will and capacity to wean the country away from an unequal relationship with the United States. Some presidents maintained good ties with China and Russia but none had the audacity to cut the umbilical cord that ties the Philippines to US interventionism and arms flexing in the region. More than ever, foreign relations today is the shadow instrument of the defense department to assure America of treaty commitments and the business elite of joint ventures with foreign partners. Mr. Duterte can have Congress review PH-US treaties toward recasting foreign relations. Otherwise, the unequal ties with America as the main portal of Philippine foreign policy will be sustained.
Two conservative institutions—the security establishment and the corporate elite—enjoy unlimited influence in the Duterte regime. The Cabinet security cluster calls the shots in the peace talks with the Left. Despite its failure to end rebellion, the security sector is still opposed to a peace agenda that upholds Philippine sovereignty and promotes structural reforms.
So far the President has given a new lease on life to the institutions that he vowed to rebuild, including corrupt agencies, the militarist security force, and the megarich whose fortunes are shielded by his neoliberal and antiworker policies. His first year could have been used to start reforms in the fight against poverty, job generation, curbing corruption, and ensuring lasting peace.
Minimum institutional changes could have included recasting the neoliberal economic policy to make it progressive, prioritizing genuine land reform, working on a decisive antidynasty law, and upholding the civilian role in the peace talks with the Left. The peace talks provide the platform for comprehensive, inclusive, and sustained reforms based on a partnership with progressive, proreform forces.
Bobby Tuazon is CenPEG’s director for policy studies and teaches at the University of the Philippines.
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