Duterte: Strongman with a soft spot

Duterte: Strongman with a soft spot

Some would say that presumptive President-Elect Rodrigo “Rody” or “Digong” Duterte is a leftist, which he admits. Some say he is a communist, which he denies.

Others say he is pro-China. And a few say he could be the new “Amboy” – that is, “America’s Boy.” Honestly, nobody knows that much about his brand of politics.

Who the hell is Digong then? With so many contradictions on what he had said during the campaign, one might say, “This guy is enigmatic!” He’s got a little bit of the brashness of Donald Trump—which he denies. “Trump is a racist, I am not,” he said. He’s got a little bit of the unpredictability of Vladimir Putin. Hmm… He’s likened to the benevolent dictator Lee Kuan Yew, which he’d probably say, “Heck, I’m better than Lee!” Some say he’s like the late President Ramon “The Guy” Magsaysay, the most popular president the country ever had. And some see him as a real-life embodiment of the movie character “Dirty Harry.” The locals call him “The Punisher” for his zero tolerance against criminals. And what you’ve got is Trump, Putin, Lee, Magsaysay, and “Dirty Harry” all wrapped into one.

Yes, Digong is popular with the masa – common people — but feared by criminals. It’s the alchemy that forms a brand of “political populism,” one that justifies populism to achieve a political end. And it works best in a country mired in poverty and corruption. It is no wonder then that when he promised to eradicate crime in three to six months, only a few casts doubt that he could do it without declaring martial law, but the majority sees it as flicker of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. In their minds, if Digong were successful in transforming Davao City from the “Murder Capital of the Philippines” to the safest city in the Philippines and “one of the safest in the world,” then that is good enough to give him their votes. Forget that some skeptics don’t believe these statistical claims, but when the residents of Davao City feel safe, then these become “facts” unless proven otherwise. And who among his political rivals have the credibility to challenge his claims?

Fighting corruption
When Duterte entered the presidential race last November, he promised to fight corruption. “If I will become president, corruption has to stop,” he said. He added that it has been bleeding the nation dry and pushing the people deeper into poverty.

When he was asked if he could really do it, he said he gained his experience of fighting corruption when he worked as a prosecutor for the Tanodbayan, the predecessor of the Ombudsman. He said that he “hounded” the corrupt when he was a Tanodbayan prosecutor. “Once upon a time, I was one of only two Tanodbayan investigators in Mindanao.” With a tinge of populism, he would tell government officials not to shortchange the public. “Don’t grab from people’s mouth what they are about to eat. What is theirs is theirs,” he’d remind them. His passion for the masa gives him credibility that he is capable of fighting corruption.

During the last days of the campaign, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV dropped a bombshell accusing Duterte of enriching himself while in office. Duterte then opened his bank account to public scrutiny to prove that there was only P17,000 in it, not P211 million as Trillanes had alleged. His quick response added credibility to his character.

By contrast, when Vice President Jejomar Binay, one of his presidential rivals, vowed to fight corruption and go after corrupt officials, nobody believed him. And when asked to disclose his bank accounts, Binay refused. How could the people believe him when he has several plunder charges filed against him before the Office of the Ombudsman, and secretive about his wealth? He has zero credibility.

Economic growth
Not content with outgoing President Benigno Aquino III’s economic growth of an average of 6 percent, Duterte plans to pursue a growth of 7-8 percent or higher.

“If we want to reduce the poverty rate, we need a higher growth,” his spokesman Peter Laviña said. And this begs the question: Can he do it? Yes, he can.

However, as what had happened in the administrations of Aquino and his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who have sustained high economic growths, it did not alleviate the suffering of the poor. In spite of the Philippines’ high economic growth – it’s the “best economy in Southeast Asia today” — poverty and hunger are on the upswing. Why?

In 1973, World Bank president Robert McNamara spoke about poverty, saying: “Despite a decade of unprecedented increase in the gross national product of the developing countries, the poorest segments of their population have received relatively little benefit [because] rapid growth has been accompanied by greater maldistribution of income in many developing countries.” He went on to say that “the growth of GNP is essentially an index of the welfare of the upper income groups. It is quite insensitive to what happens to the poorest 40%, who collectively receive only 10-15% of the total national income.”

It wouldn’t take a social scientist or economist a long time to figure out that this was exactly the problem the Philippines faces today, which is:
maldistribution of income. Add corruption to the mix and the outcome is: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Indeed, if there is one challenge that Duterte will be faced with, it’s how he’s going to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor? To find the answer, one has to look at our Asian neighbors, the so-called “economic tigers.” If there is one measure of their success, it’s their growing middle class, which increases as the lower class decreases.

It’s noteworthy to mention also that a lot of social scientists are of the opinion that corruption creates poverty, not the other way around. If Duterte makes good of his promise to fight corruption, he’d have a good start in fighting poverty as well. And with his empathy for the poor, Duterte could feel at ease in starting a peaceful political and economic revolution.

Platform for success
Duterte has a three-pronged platform that he plans to implement in the first six months of his presidency, which his spokesman Peter Laviña had outlined as follows:

1. Pursue a 24/7 fight against drugs, criminality, corruption, and poverty;
2. Call on Congress to pass a law for the election of members of a Constitutional Convention to undertake a “major rewriting” of the 1987 Constitution. The objectives are to institute a shift to a federal parliamentary form of government, and to ease the current restrictions on foreign ownership of land, public utilities, educational institutions, and participation in the exploitation of natural resources; and
3. Pursue negotiations and forge peace agreements toward political settlements of the protracted armed conflicts both with the Left revolutionary forces and the Muslim rebel organizations.

One might say that his platform is ambitiously quixotic. But he has one chance to succeed. If he fails, he’d finish his term just like most of his predecessors – mediocre. If he succeeds, he’d be looked upon by generations to come as the Father of the Sixth Philippine Republic. But he can only achieve that if he remains what he is today: a strongman with a soft spot for the masa.