Trick or treat
Good governance practice calls for periodically reviewing major and controversial programs. Modifying the structure of Icad (the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs) offered an occasion for such a review. Daring Vice President Leni Robredo to act as Icad cochair also seemed a clever political move. Why the ploy failed, and the consequences of the failure, will continue to unfold.The initial offer was surprisingly generous. To prove sincerity, explained presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, the appointment would place “all offices, bureaus, agencies or government instrumentalities involved in the enforcement of the law on prohibited drugs… under [Robredo’s] command and supervision with a Cabinet secretary portfolio” and would be coterminous with the President’s term. Political rivals, starting with those Robredo defeated in 2016, had no reason to cheer her success, which would strengthen her as a competitor in future elections. Add to the list those who had been responsible for driving the drug war and may fear that Robredo might inadvertently stumble over buried bones and expose incompetence or corruption.
For Mr. Duterte himself, however, it was a low-risk gambit. By his own admission, the drug war needed “tweaking.” It had aggravated the problems of the justice system, adding to the congestion of the courts and the prisons, some already holding four to five times their capacity. Concern over a public health crisis in the prisons was not surprising. With limited health care facilities, detention could become a death sentence even for suspects not yet convicted. Public opposition, not to the drive against drugs, but to the killing of mainly low-level suspects, had not abated. Prosecution of the campaign relied mainly on the police, but too many officers had been implicated in extortion, graft involving the recycling of drugs and suspected extrajudicial killings. The President had also admitted this problem, even talking about taking over the Philippine National Police because he had difficulty finding an honest officer for the position. But a campaign to clean up a weaponized agency he had empowered was risky. It made sense to enlist a dupe to draw the fire and distance the presidency from potential flak. If Robredo fails, she loses credibility as opposition leader. Alternatively, any semblance of success would give Mr. Duterte credit for his “out-of-the box” appointment. He controlled all the cards, including the initiative in setting Robredo’s performance standards.
This fail-safe scenario depended on a clear government good-faith effort to give Robredo realistic goals and commensurate authority and resources. It must convince the public that it had not stacked the deck to ensure failure or risk a backfire. Robredo did not make this easy. She sought clarification on the scope of her authority; a presidential meeting for this purpose never came. She accepted the restrictions to the original offer, including the withdrawal of the Cabinet post and denial of access to the drug list. She prudently declined to intervene in operational issues, limiting herself to seeking and reviewing data needed for proposing evidence-based policies. She tried to keep the President informed about her initiatives through reports that he never read. Hence, the reasons offered to justify her unceremonious dismissal from the post were unconvincing and contradicted the public rationale for her appointment. While communists were considered capable of serving national interests in the Cabinet, an elected Vice President was deemed not deserving of equal trust. Although denied the time to effect meaningful change in the prosecution of the drug war, Robredo focused attention on strategic elements: the drug trade as a global challenge that requires international collaboration; addressing addiction as both a police and a health concern demanding a serious and visible rehabilitation program; holding erring police officers to account as indispensable to the restoration of public confidence in the PNP. It did not take long to expose the Icad Halloween appointment as a trick, not an early Christmas treat.
Mr. Duterte never intended to empower Robredo and probably never expected her to call the bluff. But the issues Robredo flagged remain crucial and, along with the report she promised to share with the public, should not be forgotten.
Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. Business Matters is a project of Makati Business Club ([email protected]).
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