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Duterte overturns Duterte

The most memorable takeaway I had from President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) last Monday was his realization that to eradicate corruption, he needed to “overturn” the government and replace erring government personnel. For this purpose, he recommended declaring martial law.

When Mr. Duterte was elected president in 2016, the people thought they were engaging him to do precisely that—to “overturn” the government. The people were ecstatic when they crowded around him at the Luneta during his miting de avance. They swooned when he kissed the Philippine flag. He was reaping the dividends of “anger politics,” the people repudiating the hypocritical liberal democratic regime of the 1987 Constitution that had been hijacked by the elite. He was contracted to “overturn” the government and skew it their way for a change.

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President Duterte started his government with three directional strands. The first strand was the regular government bureaucracy of 1.5 million. It is a massive, habitually performing organization glued to set objectives and procedures permeating the whole structure. It would keep operating without any prodding.

The second strand consisted of the very politicians, businessmen, and other members of the elite the people were angry about. They were those who monopolized the resources and opportunities of the economy, political system, and society. As soon as Mr. Duterte was elected, these politicians and self-absorbed elites attached themselves to the new President and the piers of crony and family influences that radiated from him.

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The third strand was populated by civic-minded, professional, talented, capable individuals who found their way into the Duterte officialdom. They were ready to help power his reform agenda. This group included Gina Lopez (DENR) and Judy Taguiwalo (DSWD). Professionals carried over from the previous administration included Maria Lourdes Sereno (Supreme Court), Conchita Carpio Morales (Ombudsman), and Patricia Licuanan (CHEd). And there was Vice President Leonor Robredo (HUDCC).

In a rainbow Cabinet that contained regressive and progressive elements, Mr. Duterte should have powered the latter against the former, to change the complexion of his government. But the third strand quickly wilted under Mr. Duterte.

There was much excitement when Gina Lopez quickly set the reformist tone in the DENR. Her background as a scion of the ABS-CBN Lopez family made her all the more endearing to the people.

Much of the credibility of Mr. Duterte during the early years was the earnestness and integrity with which the third strand worked with him. For a time, Mr. Duterte reveled in being identified with these progressives.

But in time, Duterte overturned Duterte. It was reform backsliding not from the bottom, but from the top. In his speech before the DENR staff on their 31st anniversary in August 2018, Mr. Duterte acted as if he was a disinterested kibitzer of the political scene. All he could say was: “When Ma’am Gina was removed by the Commission on Appointments, it was maybe because she became very strong against the business in mining industry. I think there was a conspiracy to remove her. And they did.” That was that. He did not champion his environment secretary.

Even then, in 2018, Mr. Duterte was able to reflect sympathetically on the situation. “She was going against moneyed people and she was against the destruction of her native land,” he said, adding: “So I’d like to reiterate to you again what I said during the last meeting in the Cabinet that there will be a time, I still have time left, that I will have to ban open-pit mining. I will destroy it.”

So much for words. Duterte the “tradpol” (traditional politician) went on to overturn Duterte the reformist. This April, Mr. Duterte lifted the 2012 ban issued by President Benigno S. Aquino III on new mining operation licenses. This was not surprising. In 2019, the Duterte government already allowed the operation of suspended mining firms.

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The day after the President’s Sona, the mayor of Brooke’s Point, Palawan, Jean Feliciano, started serving the suspension imposed on her by the Ombudsman (OMB) for one year without pay after Feliciano closed the mining operations of Ipilan Nickel Corp. in four barangays of Brooke’s Point. Ipilan, Feliciano said, cut up to 100,000 trees, destroying the watershed area and the downstream farms that constitute the food basket for Palawan. The residents of Brooke’s Point have rallied in support of their mayor and against the OMB ruling.

Since 2002, the people of Palawan have pushed back against large-scale mining. Mr. Duterte’s change of heart adds a new challenge to Palawan, which is not only the last frontier but also the first line of defense against China’s encroachments on the West Philippine Sea.

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TAGS: Cabinet, Duterte, Government, politician, Sona
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