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On The Move

Duterte’s game: Redemption or recrudescence?

As soon as Vice President Leni Robredo announced her decision to accept the position of cochair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-illegal Drugs (Icad), her supporters quickly rallied behind her, abandoning their initial objection to her taking on the appointment. The diehard Duterte supporters appeared confused, obviously not expecting Robredo to accept the post. Their reaction was unwelcoming, repudiating Robredo’s acceptance for being defiant rather than submissive in tone.

The country has come to a critical crossroads. What lies ahead? Certainly, there is real movement on the chessboard. President Duterte could aim to embarrass and discredit Robredo, trapping her in a task with no chance of success, or he could give her full rein to redirect and reenergize the war on drugs and take credit for it. On the side of Robredo, she could use the “hopeless” appointment as a platform for the duplicitous and bankrupt Duterte administration, or she could use the opportunity, no matter how small, to demonstrate that the war on drugs can be redirected and reenergized.

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In promptly calling for an Icad meeting, Robredo has taken charge, not waiting for any guidance from the President on what she can or cannot do. Her strategy seems to be to push the envelope — test the limits of the power that are implied in her being co-chair of the Icad. In the absence of any guidance from the President, the members of the Icad have had no recourse but to be present at the meeting. No one made any excuse that he was indisposed, or was out of the country, or had another important appointment. They were there — PNP OIC Archie Gamboa, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, Dangerous Drugs Board chair Catalino Cuy, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) director Aaron Aquino, Bureau of Corrections director general Gerald Bantag.

The first Icad meeting was a skirmish of minds. Robredo called on the agency members of Icad to “rethink” their strategies to end the “senseless killings” in the war against illegal drugs. She said that the association of senseless killings with police operations has reached a certain level of notoriety such that “tokhang” has acquired the connotation of a war against the poor.

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It was up to Aquino to defend the way law enforcers have prosecuted the war on drugs. In the press conference after the meeting, he “challenged” Robredo to participate in one of PDEA’s operations to see for herself that there are no lapses or defects on the part of law enforcers during antidrug operations. Robredo responded that she liked the idea.

Aquino, Icad chair, revealed in the press conference that he had written Malacañang to inquire about Robredo’s specific functions as cochair. He apologized for taking this initiative, saying it was done without malice. So far, Malacañang has been silent. But Malacañang appears to be giving Robredo a wide berth. Sen. Bong Go, who knows the President’s turn of mind, said that “Now instead of criticizing the President, she is now in charge — and she will be able to see better now how hard the job of the President is. The Vice President says she doesn’t want the innocents to get harmed. The President and I don’t want it either.”

On her part, Robredo appears to have given Malacañang some incentive to allow her leeway. In answer to a reporter’s question, she gave a profound answer, saying she preferred to confront the misconduct of law enforcers in the war on drugs “internally.” She said she would have no problem inviting the UN to probe the war on drugs only when she is convinced “the government is not doing anything to punish those that need to be punished,” based on her future meetings with different Icad clusters, which might include the quantifiable, realistic and time-bound metrics of success in the war on drugs she had proposed in the meeting.

It seems there is a whiff of a détente. If the President’s and Vice President’s diametrically opposed views of the past conduct of the drug war could be shelved in the meantime, they might be able to wage the prospective war on drugs together. If this détente qualifies as some agreement on principle, the next battle will be over metrics and protocols.

Robredo’s acceptance of the Icad cochair position has been hailed by her supporters as a master stroke. Who knows, the invitation was a master stroke by Mr. Duterte as well. But only if Mr. Duterte is playing a game not of recrudescence, but one of redemption.

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TAGS: Aaron Aquino, drug war, ICAD, leni robredo, On The Move, Segundo Eclar Romero
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