King’s gambit accepted
What was President Rodrigo Duterte thinking when he appointed Vice President Leni Robredo as “cochair” of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs?
Was it a trap set up to make her fail and look incompetent should she accept it, or unwilling and unable to help if she doesn’t? Was it an acknowledgment that the “drug war” has failed — and a well-intentioned openness to a new paradigm, with the Vice President at the helm?
Judging by the response of the President’s men, it may well be more of the former than the latter.
“This is war. You have to fight. ‘Di pwedeng pa-cute. This is not a beauty contest,” said Sen. Bato dela Rosa, the former police chief who has a penchant for making a mascot of himself.
“The drug lords will no longer be afraid… you will baby them,” chimed in Sen. Bong Go.
Judging by the President’s previous attitude toward his constitutional successor, he seems to share these misogyny-tinged responses. After all, he has previously spoken of Robredo as “incompetent” and “not ready to lead” the country.
However, the opacity of Mr. Duterte’s decision-making — plus the duplicity of his rhetoric — means that we cannot divine his true motives. For all we know, it was a decision as capricious as suddenly pulling out of the CPP-NPA peace talks, or ordering the police to cease their antidrug campaign.
In any case, Robredo accepted the gambit (apologies to Prof. Randy David for also resorting to this irresistible metaphor) — potentially turning the trap into a blunder. Amid concerns that she will be used to legitimize the drug war and later be blamed for its failures, she made her calculus clear: “If it is a chance to stop the killing of the innocents and bring to justice those who are responsible, then I will carry [the burden].”
In a sign that she’s maintaining a critical stance, one of Robredo first acts as “anti-drugs czar” was to say that there should be no more “senseless killings,” and that “tokhang” should be replaced by evidence-based policies. Surely, she realizes that the very measures of success must be reframed from killing to uplifting lives if she has any chance of “victory.”
However, despite statements like Panelo’s (“we will not allow her to fail”) that suggests Malacañang’s support, there are already indications that her pronouncements will be treated as mere “suggestions,” and that at best, she will be given authority over the “soft side” of drug governance — rehabilitation, reintegration, advocacy. With Philippine Drug Enforcement Ageny chair Aaron Aquino as her “cochair,” there seems to be a looming stalemate that can only perpetuate the unacceptable status quo.
These handicaps notwithstanding, Robredo’s presence can open opportunities for increased civil society participation and alternative approaches to drug rehabilitation and treatment. She can also help erase decades-long misconceptions about people who use drugs (e.g., that they are “addicts” beyond redemption) by highlighting drugs as a “medical and sociological” issue. Surely, there are good people in our drug and law enforcement agencies who are just waiting for someone like her to lead them.
Finally, as a lawyer with a strong human rights background, Robredo can reanimate the debate about drug policy and amplify calls to amend Republic Act No. 9165, which has enabled the worst of tokhang with its abuse-prone rules and absurdly harsh penalties (for instance, being caught with one stick of marijuana can merit 12 years of imprisonment).
Even her best hopes, however, are fraught with Faustian risks. Already, she is toning down her calls for UN investigations and her critiques of the drug war; there will have to be discursive, if not substantive, compromises. And of course, her tenure is contingent on the President’s pleasure. Perhaps she will be fired after she has outlived her political usefulness, and, as with Gina Lopez before her, whatever reforms she enacted will be undone.
And yet, if her political career is any guide, Robredo is not to be underestimated. Who knew that she — a dark horse with zero name recognition at the start of the campaign — would win the vice presidency? And that despite the efforts of the Marcoses, she would reach this advanced stage of her term?
Mr. Duterte may find that he is dealing with a queen rather than a pawn.
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