The Evolution of President Duterte

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Calixto V. Chikiamco


The Evolution of President Duterte

When I’m asked what I think of President Duterte’s performance in office so far, I say that he has evolved in a positive way and that he’s is evolving further but he still has plenty of shortcomings.

Indeed, President Duterte has evolved. Duterte Version 1.0, if one can call him that in the early months of his presidency, was acting like the Mayor of the Philippines, bringing small-minded city mayor thinking to national governance. He appointed key officials from a narrow circle of Davao friends and campaign supporters, San Beda Law graduates and Lex Taliones fraternity brothers, and also, Leftists associated with the CPP-NPA.

Duterte 1.0 was also unabashedly populist. He attacked oligarchs openly. He appointed the anti-mining advocate Gina Lopez as Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, who promptly tried to close most mining sites. He raised the pensions of Social Security System (SSS) members against the advice of his economic managers, thereby sharply curtailing the SSS fund life. He allowed the leftist Kadamay group to illegally occupy government’s social housing sites. He threatened companies with his “Ending ENDO” policy (making contractual labor arrangements illegal) even while appointing radical leftists in the Department of Labor.

On the other hand, Duterte has clearly evolved. He has shown a capacity to learn, perhaps because he’s humble enough to say he wasn’t very diligent and intelligent, taking six years to finish high school and barely passing the bar.

In contrast, Duterte 2.0 has appointed key officials outside of his narrow circle of fraternity brothers and Davao friends. He has appointed many officials with a military background to civilian government positions (e.g. the heads of the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Interior and Local Government, Metro Manila Development Authority, etc.). Perhaps this isn’t surprising because the Armed Forces has probably the most educated professional corps in government. No officer can be promoted to colonel without a master’s degree. A number have MBAs or have studied in post-graduate institutions abroad. According to Duterte, they also know how to follow and execute orders. He cited, for example, DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu and DILG Secretary Eduardo Año, both ex-generals, who were responsible for cleaning up Boracay.

The Leftists and the environmental extremists in his Cabinet are gone, thankfully, because they were scaring businessmen and investors. Duterte smartly allowed them not to be confirmed by the Commission on Appointments.

Duterte 2.0 has also wisely ended the peace talks with the CPP-NPA. Duterte 1.0 was naive in the beginning and the CPP-NPA ably exploited the peace talks to strengthen their military and political base.

Furthermore, Duterte 2.0 has allowed the political Establishment, in the person of Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to come back to power in the House, at the expense of his Davao friend, former Speaker and Davao congressman Pantaleon Alvarez. Speaker Arroyo swiftly put order in the House and made it pass Duterte’s legislation in record time.

Duterte 2.0 can rightfully claim on some “wins.” The recent passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) is a big achievement. It had eluded his predecessors. Former President Joseph Estrada made all-out war, rather than peace, with the MILF. On the other hand, Former President Arroyo’s version of a peace deal with the MILF, the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Former President Noynoy Aquino’s Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, however, died on the fields of Mamasapano.

While it’s still too early to tell whether the BOL will lead to lasting peace in Mindanao, it certainly lays the foundation for peace and development in the strife-torn region. The BOL got passed despite opposition from some powerful local politicians in the region. Kudos then to Duterte 2.0 for this major achievement.

Duterte 2.0 has also been a strong supporter of economic reforms. Through his support, TRAIN 1 or Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Package 1, got passed into law, despite some unpopular features of the law, such as raising the excise taxes on oil. TRAIN 1 has improved the fiscal capacity of the state to undertake much-needed infrastructure projects while correcting the high tax rates on fixed income earners.

Another plus for Duterte 2.0 is that he’s trying to break up the telco duopoly by supporting the entry of a third telco. Unfortunately, various issues have delayed its entry. However, credit must still be given to Duterte for trying hard to bring competition in the telecommunication sector and reduce the high charges and shoddy service by the existing players.

However, the biggest win for Duterte 2.0 so far is the Rice Tariffication Law, which abolished the National Food Authority’s monopoly on rice importation. That he has stayed the course and even signed the bill into law instead of letting it lapse into law last Friday despite last minute lobbying by Secretary Manny Piñol and the criminal syndicates in the NFA is a testament to his political will. Talk to economic reformers and they will tell you the rice tariffication reform is huge. It will lead to lower food prices for the poor while raising revenues that go directly to farmers rather than the pockets of corrupt NFA officials and their rice trader friends.

Duterte’s support for the Rice Tariffication Law is a product of his evolution. The fact is that he listened initially to former NFA Administrator Jason Aquino and Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol on prohibiting private sector importation of rice. However, when NFA mismanagement led to the high inflation fiasco fed by higher food prices, Duterte finally listened to his economic team and declared the rice tariffication bill a priority.

Duterte 2.0, however, still has a lot of failures and shortcomings. His Drug War is a big bust. No big fish has been arrested and jailed. On the contrary, smuggling of drugs is going on big time. Only small-time drug dealers, users, and innocent bystanders have been killed in the name of the drug war, yet it has caused a high reputational damage to the Philippines internationally.

The failure to rehabilitate Marawi more than a year after the end of the siege is also another big minus and a black mark on his administration. It’s well-known that corruption and incompetence are causing the delay of Marawi’s rehabilitation, but Duterte so far has refused to do anything about it. The failure to rehabilitate Marawi will feed the radicalization of Muslim youth and set the stage for more terroristic acts against the civilian population. It’s going to negate some gains from the BOL.

The administration’s BBB (Build-Build-Build) program also deserves a grade of C minus or even a D. His administration’s shift away from the PPP mode toward GAA (General Appropriations Act or the budget) and ODA (Official Development Assistance) and unsolicited BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) was plainly wrong. The PPP mode gives the private sector incentives to finish infrastructure projects on time and on budget while GAA and ODA projects are dependent on an honest and competent bureaucracy to implement, which we don’t have. On the other hand, unsolicited BOTs aren’t subject to real competitive bidding. Thus, his Department of Transportation has so far failed miserably to start and finish all its grandiose projects. Traffic has worsened, not improved, and there’s no clear relief in sight.

Another mixed result is President Duterte’s foreign policy. While President Duterte did a rebalancing away from former President Noynoy Aquino’s overtly pro-American foreign policy toward China, he seems to have overdone it a bit. While he has gotten some aid from China and perhaps more tourists, his foreign policy doesn’t seem to have stopped China’s encroachment on our territory. It remains to be seen whether Duterte’s practical approach to foreign policy will come at the long term cost of our national sovereignty and territory.

However, to my mind, Duterte’s biggest failure so far is his failure to address poverty, especially in the rural areas. His administration hasn’t done much to raise agricultural productivity, which is the lowest in Asean. In fact, agricultural growth last year was nearly flat at 0.56%, no thanks to Agricultural Secretary Manny Piñol, whose policies consist mainly of populist giveaways — free fertilizer, free irrigation, free cavan of rice — and protectionist measures. Without increasing agricultural productivity, the economy faces the risk of a return of food inflation and lower competitiveness of our manufacturing sector.

Therefore, I would like to see a Duterte 3.0, one who will finally reform the main cause of our stagnant agriculture — the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law and the Department of Agrarian Reform’s overreach in regulating the rural land market. I would also like to see a Duterte 3.0 that will certify the Public Service Act Amendment as urgent legislation to increase foreign investments in shipping and ports, and thereby lower logistical costs to farmers trying to sell to market. In other words, I want to see a Duterte 3.0 succeed where no previous president has succeeded — introduce reforms to modernize agriculture and drastically reduce poverty in the countryside.

Finally, I would like to see a Duterte 4.0, one who will see the wisdom of respecting human rights and strengthening judicial and political institutions. We can dream, can’t we?


Calixto V. Chikiamco is a board director of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis.