Life after the midterm elections
President Duterte and the nation seem to forget he is no longer the scourge of the establishment. He is now the establishment. Mr. Duterte is poised to acquire a vehicle with an even more powerful, upgraded, supermajority 2.0 engine in Congress. What is he going to use it for, in the second half of his term?
At the start, Mr. Duterte had a bloated reputation for power because he was an unknown quantity. But by midterm, he has been cut to size. We know betterwhat he is capable of doing, or not
doing. Despite his strongman reputation, Mr. Duterte may have actually squandered his political capital on tactical things. The war on drugs has skipped the big fish and now the streets are flooded with drugs. The war on corruption has been resurgent in the face of nagging accusations about the involvement of the President’s family itself. Marawi continues to cry out for rehabilitation two years after the tragedy. Meantime, traffic congestion, and shortages and price increases in rice, water and energy, continue to rile the people from day to day.
If you can survive three years of a full-dose Duterte, you can survive another three years of a half-dose Duterte. In the next three years, he has reduced resources, capabilities and opportunities. Think of Mr. Duterte’s weekly visits to Army camps in 2016, which held the promise of a radical change, even a “revolutionary government.” The military did not go along, and Mr. Duterte has quit going that way.
Think of the bureaucracy that was to boldly implement reforms in mining and the environment, social services,labor contractualization, agricultural productivity, taxation, infrastructure, foreign relations. In most cases, the Cabinet
secretaries became the very issues that bogged down substantive work. The initial controversial rainbow Cabinet was followed by less controversial civilian and military leaders, but who have not energized and mobilized the bureaucracy.
Presidents plan and promise grandiose things at the start of their term. At midterm, they imagine they can still accomplish what they had failed to do in the first half. It does not work that way. Midterm is when you consolidate, not jumpstart, strategic things. The power equation changes. You have become the establishment, and everybody will be trying to hem you in or pry you out.
What can be accomplished in the next three years? The “Build, build, build” projects will certainly push through. There is something compelling about infrastructure contracts and contractors; like cockroaches, they almost always manage to survive and get satisfaction.
As to projects like the shift to federalism that are politically risky, with unclear beneficiaries and stakeholders, these will likely be put in the backburner. What dividends will Mr. Duterte get from such volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous enterprises? And what will the elites and the people get out of it? The perceived risks outweigh the perceived benefits
One would have wished we were deciding strategic issues for the nation in these elections — pathways toward electoral reform; coherent, programmatic political parties; inclusive campaign finance; regulated political dynasties; more inclusive politics and governance, etc. But that is not the case.
For cunning politicians, however, the more strategic concerns are already in play. There is such a fuss about who is going to be the No. 1 senator, because that demonstrates equity to run for president. Cynthia Villar is now the apparent frontrunner, along with Grace Poe.
Forward-thinking politicians may already see the next president in a woman — Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, Leni Robredo or, perhaps, Sara Duterte?
The view of the elections today is different for ordinary Filipinos. For many of them, voting in today’s elections is a civic ritual, the meaning of which is not entirely clear. This ritual will not put food on the table, or send their children to school, or pay for hospital bills. Nevertheless, they travel long distances to vote in their hometowns. And there will be myriad tiny civic heroic acts today, like some persons with disabilities struggling to vote in a fourth-floor voting precinct in a school.
Filipinos love democracy, but it does not love them back. Politicians and people figure in the same electoral dance today. But they will be dancing to different discordant tunes, as they always have.
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