Down to the last bluff
Watching from abroad, Erin Cook who runs a highly readable Southeast-Asian-focused Substack newsletter, “Dari Mulut ke Mulut,” joins other regional observers in poring over the dense news coming out of Manila, namely the decline in the Dutertes’ political fortunes. The former president, Cook writes, is obviously intent on dragging out the case filed by emboldened radical legislator France Castro (emboldened, not least, because, in other news, the National Democratic Front or NDF has embarked on new peace talks with the government). Not even the recent tragedy in Marawi seems able to offset the growing perception among domestic and foreign observers that the split in the ruling coalition is a manifestation of Marcos strength and Duterte weakness.
Here the question of the military and police deserves a closer look. One reason Marawi seems less alarming is there is a possible explanation for it: retaliation on the part of those who took credit for the blast, with Cook writing that “there is speculation that it could be a retaliatory attack after skirmishes between the Dawlah Islamiya-Maute group and security forces. These clashes include an enormous one last week in which the leader of the group is believed to have been among the 11 killed.”
Add to this past outrage on the part of radicals who mourned the killing of Benito and Wilma Tiamzon, who held true power in the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in contrast to the late Jose Ma. Sison being a figurehead; it was their release, after having been captured by the armed forces, that riled the military during the time of President Rodrigo Duterte. When his alliance with the NDF was abandoned, Duterte mended fences with the military by allowing them to pursue the communist leadership in the field. The CPP-New People’s Army admitted the Tiamzons were killed in August 2022, but disputed the military’s version of events. Be that as it may, the military may seem satisfied that the damage done by Duterte has been somewhat repaired, while the political leadership finds it useful to work with radical representatives (and vice versa).
The result is recent military statements of (qualified) support for the peace process with the communists, saying peace would allow the military to focus on external defense, which has become a more dynamic effort with the country repairing its international image and in fact, strengthening old alliances (the United States, Japan, Korea, and Australia) while building new ones (with Canada and France).
The Supreme Court for its part is going through a procedural inquiry (by asking her to respond to cases against her) into the Vice President’s use of confidential funds; and, coming full circle is her father trying to slap away that radical lawmaker’s complaint against him while seeing the twin possibility of Congress threatening to cancel the franchise of Sonshine Media Network International (depriving him of a bully pulpit) while possibly welcoming International Criminal Court investigators to look into his so-called “war on drugs.”
In every instance, these cases are being viewed as the Philippines once more settling comfortably into the ranks of responsible nations, and thus overcoming a bizarre interlude in its recent past; expanding, by the way, the base of support of the incumbent president to include those opposed to him (and his family) over the past three to four decades.
You have to wonder if there is something larger at the heart of this emerging transfer of power. In my last column, I wondered if the President, now, represents a new political center. And if he does, what is at its core. Ironically, starting from the surface, it involves a veneer of cosmopolitan ease, the comfort of being used to commanding, the sheen that comes from successfully engineering a restoration. Moving inwards, it comes, as well, from a political inclusivity that makes space for all sides so long as they stay within acceptable limits of behavior, and that includes presidential self-control (not too greedy, not too vindictive, not too embarrassing). Ultimately, however, it depends on demonstrating an understanding that none of the big blocs in our national life are interested in anything earth-shattering taking place. Small tweaks to take the edge off public irritation, but otherwise, a recognition that no one really wants the rules changed too much so that no one has to wrestle with the risk and discomfort of too much unpredictability. That’s the ticket.
People power was taken off the table in 2001-2006 (after the risk of uncontrollable urban insurrection permanently frightened away the middle class from risking regime change outside elections); Duterte’s victory in 2016 ratified that informal choice, which means he cannot summon that genie, either. Instead of the grand gesture, and the big gamble, the Marcos-Romualdez method is to creep along, incrementally eroding their coalition ally’s strength. The irony is that after he tried using the scare tactic of military and police adventurism, Duterte failed to make the other side blink. From Left, Right, and Center, there seems an emerging unity of purpose—to repair the damage the previous dispensation did.
Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3