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Rody Duterte and his ‘iron hand’ presidency

SINGAPORE—Supporters of presumptive President Rodrigo Duterte expect him to replicate at the national level his success in curbing crime at the city level. But can he fix the Philippines’ economy and other serious ills?

Five big names in the Philippines competed to become its 16th president on May 9. The most controversial of them was Duterte, the mayor of Davao City. He won convincingly and will begin his term on June 30. What will it mean for the Philippines?

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Although Duterte has a massive base of supporters, he also faces intense opposition. He is a lawyer and a politician who has been mayor of Davao City for seven terms (or more than 22 years); he was also its vice mayor and was congressman of its district. Zero tolerance for criminals is his ultimate policy, and for that he earned the sobriquet “The Punisher.”

In 2015, Numbeo ranked Davao as the safest and fourth most livable city in the Philippines and the fifth safest city in the world, with a crime index of 18.18 and a safety index of 81.82. Also, the Philippines’ Department of Tourism consistently ranks Davao City as one of the top tourist destinations in the country.

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Besides having a low crime rate, Davao also ranks as the fifth richest city in the Philippines. The top 10 richest cities are dominated by cities in the National Capital Region, with only Davao and Cebu from Mindanao and the Visayas,

respectively.

Duterte’s supporters believe that he can bring the same success to the national level. His opponents highly doubt this, given his city-scale successes and the country’s sheer diversity.

Supporters believe Duterte can eliminate crime and corruption, and instill discipline with an iron hand. But crime and corruption may only be symptoms and not the root of the problem. Millions of Filipinos are drowning in poverty due largely to a lack of job opportunities. The Philippine Statistics Authority reported that in 2015, 26.3 percent of Filipinos were impoverished, with an annual income of US$230. Loopholes in the law in areas such as “labor contractualization” favor the wealthy and oppress the poor.

Duterte has promised to address these issues, but through rather drastic measures. The people only hope for the best. However, the reaction to “iron hand” governance in a previously colonized country that has experienced martial law may not be easy, and insurgencies are likely to occur.

Everyone admires the low crime rate in Davao City, but human rights activists are questioning Duterte’s means of maintaining peace. He has admitted involvement in extrajudicial killings. His opponents argued that should he become president, anyone accused of crime would not have a fair chance in any judicial proceeding. Some opponents said he might choose to pull the trigger on anyone but the most influential perpetrators. But his supporters seem willing to give up some of their principles in exchange for security—even if it means living in fear.

National security is Duterte’s top priority. The country’s security forces will be further strengthened as he intends to work closely with them to ensure peace and security. People only hope these supposed protectors do not abuse their power. Otherwise, it will be no different from the martial law era of 1972-1986.

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As part of his Mindanao Peace and Development Plan, Duterte intends to deploy 3,000 more Special Forces troops to increase the capability of the national armed forces. He believes this is necessary to eliminate armed rebellion that has plagued the country’s southern part. He believes stabilizing Mindanao is necessary for economic growth. But in terms of protecting the national territory against China’s push in the South China Sea, his stance remains vague.

Duterte’s knowledge of economics is rather weak tea compared to his crime-fighting skills, and this bothers the country’s investors. Failing to impress businesspeople, he apologized for his coyness on economics. He is aware that he is not an expert in the field and aims to tap the country’s brightest economists. International investors specifically pointed out that they would like to see a continuity of the previous administration’s fiscal prudence and anticorruption efforts.

Duterte also aims to promote federalism, which will work only if the country’s local and regional government units and institutions are capable to carry out policy experiments and to govern their constituencies. Unfortunately, the country’s institutions at present are weak. National politics is still synonymous with corruption and nepotism.

Heavily criticizing Duterte for his lack of tact and diplomacy, his opponents feel he will damage the country’s foreign relations. The media picked up the horrible joke he made about a dead missionary, though supporters defended it as a misinterpretation. He was probably the only presidential candidate who cursed on national TV—an act that made him a genuine person to his supporters, but a destroyer of Filipino values to his opponents.

Duterte once cursed Pope Francis. He made jokes about wives tolerating their husbands’ infidelity as long as they do not get sexually transmitted diseases. Despite this, he still managed to win the presidential election. A conservative citizen may say that a mainly traditional and religious country like the Philippines is slowly losing its values, while a radical citizen may say that an expression of support for him is a manifestation of discontent with the incumbent administration.

Duterte’s rise to power may be regarded as Mindanao’s rise to power as well, considering that political power has long been concentrated in Metro Manila. The South is beset with a seeming lack of financial resources. The Philippine Commission on Audit reported in 2014 that the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao remained the country’s poorest region.

It is hard to predict what the next six years will be for the Philippines under President Duterte. His advisers and Cabinet members will play a critical role in confronting the challenges that will come his way. The advent of the Duterte administration will create various uncertainties about the country’s future. It is highly likely that he will dramatically reduce crime and corruption, making the country a safe place to live, work and invest in. But his lack of expertise in economics may pose serious challenges.

The biggest challenge could be uniting a nation that has been wracked by chronic religious and ethnic conflicts for years, especially in Mindanao. There is hope that his iron fist may, if used properly, resolve the Philippines’ numerous problems and raise its standard of living. Yet there are also risks that the situation may only worsen if this iron fist is misused for the vested interests of certain groups—as has often been seen in Philippine history.

Eileen Kae A. Relao is a candidate for a master’s degree in public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. This piece was first run in the Business Times of Singapore in a longer form.

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TAGS: Davao City, Elections 2016, Rodrigo Duterte
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