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What Duterte got right

Much has been said about President Duterte’s shortcomings. Despite his promise to behave more “statesmanlike,” the President has defied every single convention in favor of an all-consuming cult of action, which has shaken the foundations of our fragile democracy.

His “independent” foreign policy is increasingly looking like a China-friendly strategic catechism. His war on drugs has sparked international outrage and deepened the country’s isolation. And his ubiquitous unpredictability has rattled enthusiastic investors and seasoned economic managers alike.

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Thousands of deaths are still under investigation, further exacerbating the climate of impunity. A man of many firsts, Mr. Duterte has launched an emerging imperial presidency that will likely define the Philippines for generations to come.

As he enters his third year in office, the question is: What has he got right? What explains his enduring charisma and popularity among Filipinos?

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In my view, the President got at least four things right in his first two years in office.

The first was to place the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) in charge of his war on drugs. From the very beginning, I and countless other experts have emphasized the necessity for a methodical, surgical and calibrated response to the drug menace in this country.

The Philippine National Police was not designed for a Duterte-style drug war. And, gladly, the Armed Forces of the Philippines kept a healthy distance form the whole affair, instead focusing on its primary duty of protecting our territorial integrity.

Once the PDEA took the lead in the drug war in late 2017, there was an immediate and massive decline in the number of reported extrajudicial killings. Crucially, the efficacy of the counternarcotics operations seemingly improved under the less lethal approach.

Unfortunately, however, it took widespread public outrage following the gruesome murder of innocent teenagers such as Kian delos Santos for the President to revisit the wisdom of his drug war. His public apology to Kian’s family was noteworthy, though justice has yet to be found for such cases.

Second, paradoxically, it took the Duterte administration to pass the historic Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the supposed signature national security accomplishment of the previous administration. The President rightly certified the bill as urgent, leveraging his political capital to hammer out differences and nudge Congress and the bill’s stakeholders toward a mutually satisfactory compromise.

Thanks to the BBL, there is now a roadmap toward lasting peace in Mindanao. For sure, it will take more than just a legal framework to address the profound grievances that have driven the decades-long conflict in the South. But, at least, Mr. Duterte oversaw the nation taking a leap of faith in the right direction.

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Third, Mr. Duterte has come under fire, and rightly so, for his acquiescent posturing toward China. From his call for a “meek” and “humble” diplomacy in exchange for China’s “mercy,” to his refusal to assert our arbitration award and even quipping about the Philippines becoming a “province of China,” the President has risked making the country look like China’s newest regional client state.

In international politics, perception matters, and the rhetoric of heads of state accordingly carries serious strategic implications. As one senior Western military official told me, “We can’t want to fight for Scarborough Shoal more than your own president.” This isn’t provincial politics anymore.

Yet, it was under this administration, and particularly thanks to patriots such as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, that we are finally upgrading our decrepit facilities in Pag-asa and other features in the Kalayaan Group of Islands.

Lastly, the Duterte administration should be credited for its ambitious infrastructure
vision, which, even if only partly successful, will redefine the country’s economic future. From the accelerated completion of Mactan-Cebu International Airport to the launch of other big-ticket projects in Clark (airport expansion) and Metro Manila (subway), there are reasons to be optimistic about the coming infrastructure landscape of the country.

Years from now, we may also thank Mr. Duterte for temporarily shutting down Boracay, though his timing and methods were definitely far from optimal. How I wish he would also pay attention to the impending environmental disaster in other places, including in my hometown of Baguio.

[email protected]

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TAGS: Bangsamoro Basic Law, BBL, Illegal drugs, Mindanao, PDEA, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Rodrigo Duterte, Sona 2018
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