With no major political organization behind him and no big donors to fund his campaign, President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte was propelled to power by people from all walks of life. He beat four other candidates, three of whom – Jejomar Binay, Mar Roxas, and Grace Poe — were funded by executives of some of the country’s top companies, including San Miguel Corporation, Araneta Group, and Aboitiz Group. Shunned by the major newspaper outlets – or was it an organized boycott? — Duterte waged an intensive grassroots campaign and used the social media to reach out to the ordinary people.
He hammered in a promise to fight – nay, kill – the criminals and drug lords, and stop corruption in government. He vowed to restore the death penalty by hanging. And for drug lords, he’d hang them twice – once to kill them and the second time to severe their heads. And with his reputation as “The Punisher” during the two decades that he was mayor of Davao City, no criminal would ever doubt that he was serious about his threats. And to make his point crystal clear, he appointed his most trusted police officer, Gen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, as the new Director General of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
Dela Rosa, on his first day on the job, warned the policemen involved in illegal drugs that “they have 48 hours to surrender to him.” Indeed, Duterte couldn’t have chosen a better PNP Chief than Dela Rosa, who earned his moniker “Bato” – which means “Stone” – for what he is, a hardened cop who had served “The Punisher” well in fighting criminals. But calling him “Bato” would be kinder than what I’d call him – a pit bull… without a leash.
Digong and Bato
It did not then come as a surprise when the drug lords put a P1-billion price on the heads of Digong (Duterte’s street moniker) and Bato. The bounty was offered by 20 imprisoned drug lords who’d pitch in P50 million each for their assassination.
But instead of cowering in fear from the jailed drug lords’ threat to assassinate them, Digong and Bato went on the offensive. To put an end to the corrupt culture inside the New Bilibid Prison, where the drug lords are given VIP privileges, Duterte ordered the replacement of the correctional officers with commandos from the PNP’s elite Special Action Force (SAF).
Poverty and corruption
Duterte’s unorthodox ways and style have earned him the respect of the people, who have been waiting for a “messiah” to deliver them from the clutches of poverty and the evils of corruption. But election after election, pretenders and charlatans promised to eradicate poverty and stop corruption, only to make the lives of the common tao worse than before. But they saw in Duterte someone who is like them and thinks like them. He talks, looks, and walks like them; therefore, he must be like them… nay, he is them! It is an alchemy that created a harmonious relationship between the people and him. And, hopefully, that fusion would stand the test of time.
But Duterte doesn’t have too much time to deliver on his promises. He said he’d stop crime and corruption in six months. While that might sound quixotic – and it is in all honesty – his determination to put an end poverty and corruption gives the people a flicker of hope.
However, it is a challenge that ordinary politicians would fail the moment they take the helm of leadership. Indeed, a few days ago, Sen. Ping Lacson said that corruption couldn’t be eradicated in six months, not in six year, and not in 60 years! In a way, he’s right, corruption has been with us in the last 70 years since the Philippines gained her independence. But that’s putting it mildly. The truth is: corruption has been ingrained in our culture since the Spanish era. That’s more than 400 years! So, how can it be eradicated in six months? Impossible! But Duterte can at least start sending drug lords and corrupt politicians to the gallows. Only then do I know that corruption can be mitigated and could eventually be stopped.
Another daunting challenge for Duterte is the communist insurgency. The communist rebellion in the Philippines is the only one of its kind in the world today. While Duterte was known to have links with communists and leftists during the early years of his mayorship of Davao City, he is a self-described “socialist.” It would alarm some people — especially those who are in the upper strata of Philippine society – who brand the socialists as “communists.” But there is a large chasm that separates the two; although, politically, they find them themselves rooting sometimes for the same causes that benefit the common tao – particularly the poor.
And being leftist or socialist sometimes puts someone in league with those who have anti-American sentiments, which begs the question: Would Duterte veer the country away from the United States and bring the country closer to communist China?
I have been wondering myself where he’d lead the country? Would he terminate the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT)? Would he withdraw the case against China that is now before the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration (PSA)?
Indeed, during the presidential campaign, he sent strong signals about his position vis-à-vis the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). Early on, he wanted to initiate bilateral talks with China; thus, abandoning the multilateral negotiation that his predecessor, former president Benigno Aquino III, preferred. The Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua took the cue and hopped into a plane to go visit Duterte in Davao City. And even Chinese President Xi Jinping wasted no time in conveying his congratulations when Duterte was being sworn into office.
Wind of change
But following his swearing-in, Duterte’s tone changed. He said he’s going to wait until the PCA made its judgment on the arbitration case, which many believe would be favorable to the Philippines. However, China had repeated over and over again that she would not abide by the PCA’s ruling. If that would be the case, the international community might treat China as a “rogue” or “outlaw” state, which would have a highly negative impact on China’s economic and political standing with the rest of the world. The question is: What are Duterte’s options? With his penchant for doing the unexpected in his unorthodox way, he just might surprise everybody with what he would do.
And to quote British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous “Wind of Change” speech to the South African Parliament in 1960: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”
Today, that “wind of change” is blowing through the 7,000 islands of the Philippines. And with that change, what used to be Duterte’s unorthodoxy yesterday would be the new orthodoxy today.