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A rousing start

/ 12:38 AM July 01, 2016

The presidency of Rodrigo Roa Duterte is off to a very good start, with a powerfully argued inaugural address that set forth his vision of governance in clear, compelling terms.

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Many of us watching the live broadcast or the livestream of the inauguration—only the fifth regularly scheduled inauguration under the 1987 Constitution, and only the sixth when Gloria Arroyo’s oath-taking at the Edsa Shrine in 2001 is included—must have braced ourselves for fiery rhetoric, off-script insults, or the occasional expletive, but true to his word, Mr. Duterte underwent a “metamorphosis” in the first hour of his presidency.

He delivered a carefully written, well-calibrated speech—and yet it did not for a moment sound inauthentic. It was the real Duterte, the veteran prosecutor who was equally at home in English and the language of the law, the successful local executive who proudly points to both his law and order record and his city’s thriving example, the long-time politician who has thought often about the country’s biggest problems.

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Careful, calibrated, and also surprising. The first surprise came early. He listed the issues his presidential campaign was most identified with: “There are many amongst us who advance the assessment that the problems that bedevil our country today which need to be addressed with urgency, are corruption, both in the high and low echelons of government, criminality in the streets, and the rampant sale of illegal drugs in all strata of Philippine society and the breakdown of law and order.”

And then he said: “True, but not absolutely so.”

He said he detected a “virulent social disease” that was “deeper and more serious”—the people’s “erosion of faith and trust in government,” he said, was “the real problem that confronts us.”

We can disagree with this reading (and we do; the surveys, the record-high voter turnout, and the victory of a career politician support the opposite view) and yet we can still appreciate the new President’s point. We all expect more from our government, and the Duterte presidency is premised on making those expectations come true.

To be completely fair, all administrations have started out with similar premises and promises; we must test the rhetoric against the reality. But it is instructive that a deeper diagnosis of social ills informs the Duterte campaign’s emphasis on fighting crime and corruption.

In measured terms, President Duterte referenced his iron-fist reputation. “I know that there are those who do not approve of my methods … They say that my methods are unorthodox and verge on the illegal.” (Some criticism asserts that he has in fact gone over the verge.) He then offered an impassioned rationale for his methods—“I have seen how illegal drugs destroyed individuals and ruined family relationships”—before addressing the human rights issue that haunts his record.

“In this fight, I ask Congress and the Commission on Human Rights and all others who are similarly situated to allow us a level of governance that is consistent to our mandate …. As a lawyer and a former prosecutor, I know the limits of the power and authority of the president. I know what is legal and what is not. My adherence to due process and the rule of law is uncompromising.”

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We appreciate the President’s reiteration of his commitment to due process and the rule of law, and his appeal to Congress and the CHR to “mind their work.” But we also note that he did not include the courts in his request for a mandate-consistent level of governance. This is a good sign, that his reputation as a courteous respecter of the judiciary’s prerogatives is not without basis.

Mr. Duterte ended his address, surprisingly, with quotes from two American presidents. The one from Franklin Roosevelt is positively Magsaysay-esque: The true test of government is “whether we provide for those who have little.” This helps explain why the new administration will likely be characterized by an emphasis on social justice. The passage from Abraham Lincoln gives the assurance that social justice will not come at the expense of any other sector of society: “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.”

Between the philosophies of these two political giants—the greatest American president of the 20th century and the greatest of the 19th—President Duterte must manage a difficult balancing act. But it is fair to say that, by the end of his stirring inaugural address, there were more people rooting for him.

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