Commentary: Almost a year in office, Rodrigo Duterte is far from the President he promised to be

Commentary: Almost a year in office, Rodrigo Duterte is far from the President he promised to be

Rodrigo Duterte has been quite the maverick President, but has he delivered on his election promises? Mong Palentino, a former member of the Philippine House of Representatives, assesses his performance.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends the opening plenary of the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Photo: REUTERS/Samrang Pring)

MANILA: Almost one year since Duterte took over as the Philippines’ President, he continues to enjoy high popularity ratings, despite having a reported reputation as a misogynist and harbouring a questionable attitude towards the importance of human lives.

His crime-fighting agenda may have earned him significant political brownie points before he became president. As mayor of Davao City in the southern island of Mindanao for almost two decades, he made crime-fighting his top priority which made Davao a safer place for both the business community and the local population.

A maverick, he also enlisted the support of various leftist groups in implementing several progressive reforms in Davao, like the passage of a local law to protect the rights of women. 

One also has to give him credit for winning the 2016 presidential election despite being the inexperienced underdog, who lacked the political machinery to mount a nationwide campaign. He truly inspired a groundswell of support from ordinary voters who saw themselves in the image of the little known leader from the poverty-stricken, remote island of Mindanao.

Rodrigo Duterte addressing supporters at a campaign rally ahead of the president elections in 2016. (Photo: AFP)

In Philippine history, no Mindanaon has ever assumed the role of President before Duterte came along. 

Duterte also endeared himself to the masses by using street lingo in his speeches. His platform of fighting illegal drugs resonated with the middle class who felt threatened by rising crime. His bold statements against oligarchs made him more famous among the poor. 

He successfully presented himself as an anti-establishment leader who spoke out convincingly against the country’s political system. 

THE PRESIDENT’S LEGACY

But his performance as President leaves one wanting.

On the one hand, Duterte was able to quickly fulfill his promise of combating illegal drugs by aggressively deploying state forces in communities and declaring a war on drugs. The police claimed this succeeded in undermining the operations of drug cartels.

But human rights advocates say this has also triggered a spate of extrajudicial killings that targeted the poor in Manila’s settlements. So Duterte spent his first year in office having to defend the government’s iron fist approach in dealing with the drug menace. 

A relative of a victim of extra-judicial killings in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war arranges photographs of victims on the grounds of a church in Manila. (Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe)

Perhaps he could have appeased some of his critics from other countries, including UN officials, if he only devoted more time emphasising his social reform agenda.

He could have also paid better attention to public opinion, to talk about his policy successes. For instance, he could have explained the political importance of the peace process which he initiated with communist and Moro rebels, the inclusion of leftists in his Cabinet or the removal of close associates accused of corruption.

On the foreign policy front, he could have talked more about his signing of the Paris climate change agreement, the imposition of a new nationwide smoking ban, and his support to auditing destructive large-scale mines.

If Duterte thinks the international press is unfair for focusing on the fire his drug war has come under when reporting his presidency, he has no one to blame but himself and his subordinates for making the anti-drug campaign his pet project.

Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte poses for a selfie with journalists at the end of the ASEAN summit in Manila. (Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe)

Beyond issues of public communication however, Duterte seems to have a dubious record when it comes to how much he is willing to accept casualties to achieve his policy aims. While he restarted peace talks with communists in Southern Mindanao, he also ordered the military to launch an all-out war offensive against rebels in February, which displaced thousands of residents in several regions of Mindanao. Activists have recorded 55 cases of political killings in the past 11 months. 

More recently, Duterte placed the whole island of Mindanao under martial law after an Islamic State-backed group attacked parts of Marawi City. The number of reported killings, torture cases and arrests without warrants is expected to rise as martial law continues to be in effect.

Although Duterte has strong public support for the current anti-terror operation, reports of massive civilian casualties caused by indiscriminate airstrikes in Marawi and mass arrests in Davao have surfaced. 

Smoke comes from a burning building as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi city, Philippines June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

One thing is for sure. At least imposing martial law succeeded in partly taking off the spotlight on other issues such as the UN probe on Duterte’s war on drugs, his careless remarks about rape and the underlying attitude towards women it betrays, and the quick dismissal by Congress of an impeachment case against Duterte. 

CAN DUTERTE’S ECONOMIC PROGRAMMES IMPROVE FILIPINOS LIVES?

Not all 16 million who voted for Duterte will be satisfied with his strong words, or his actions in Marawi and see these as proof of good governance. Filipino people need to see something concrete like an improvement in the economy and the easing of their daily hardships. 

Perhaps in anticipation, Duterte’s economic team has rebranded the government’s ambitious infrastructure plan as part of so-called “Dutertenomics”. His advisers are claiming that “Dutertenomics” will improve the lives of Filipinos by building better and bigger transport networks that would connect the rural and the urban regions of the Philippines with the rest of the world. 

But it is unclear if the benefits will trickle down to ordinary citizens. Moreover, will Filipino citizens be persuaded to pay more taxes in order to fund the government’s proposed infrastructure projects? Some are also realising how little these projects differ from the macroeconomic strategies of Duterte’s predecessors.

Customers in the Philippines using ATM machines. (Photo: AFP)

BOLD INITIATIVES BUT WAR ON DRUGS HAS DISTURBING CONSEQUENCES

To be fair, one year is not enough to make a conclusive judgment about the Duterte government’s performance. There have been bold initiatives that could potentially transform the future of the country for the better such as the accelerated peace process and the commitment to oppose destructive mining.

Even the controversial anti-drug campaign was initially welcomed by those who assumed that it would target crime bosses after Duterte named several military and police generals accused of protecting drug lords.

But one year is more than enough to observe and be alarmed over the deteriorating situation in the Philippines in terms of casualties and the allegations of killings in Duterte’s war on drugs. If there are grave findings, Duterte will have to be held accountable. He will have to probe and punish state forces involved in extrajudicial killings.

Duterte began his bid for the presidency by impressing the electorate with his pro-poor and nationalist rhetoric. But one year on, we are still waiting for results on this front.

He will have to accelerate economic programmes, for one.

Until rhetoric bears out reality, Duterte the President is far from the candidate Duterte who bravely rallied the poor and powerless in defeating the mighty forces of the elite at the polling stations. 

Mong Palatino is a former member of the Philippine House of Representatives.