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Saturday, July 31, 2021
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Abellanosa: Re-assessing Duterte’s Presidency

Fringes and frontiers

NOW that President Duterte is moving close to his last year, what has happened to “change is coming?” I am asking this question not for the purpose of resurrecting the past but of inviting to a reflection of the present that will eventually affect our future decisions.

I must admit that on a scale of one to ten, then presidentiable RRD gave the most inviting promise: “change.” I would give him around eight or nine for that. However, we just don’t vote for a candidate because he is attractive. We choose our candidate also based on the “reality” within which his promises are made. The president is “in touch” with the reality, but his promises are bloated. More than any other promise, his “six-month” estimate of solving the problem of illegal drugs was, has been, and will be most unbelievable.

I am not going to elaborate on the “jet ski” issue anymore because he has already denied the “literal truthfulness” of the statement. Invoking his undiscovered Shakespearean talent, he said that the statement was nothing but his style of answering the question. But still, it must be made clear, that for all those who expected a bolder approach to our territorial issue, the invocation of “jokes” as a cover to a seeming inaction against China is frustrating.

The war on drugs (WOD) has been the highlight of his presidency. And perhaps, if it were not for this pandemic, the same phenomenon would remain at the center stage of Philippine politics. To be less subjective about the issue, there is merit in the objective to protect society from the harm of illegal drugs. Of course, no one in his right mind would and should say that illegal drugs are good. However, it was the promise of six months that made the entire narrative unbelievable. Even some ordinary people have an idea about the complexity of the drug trade in this country. And some those who are involved in it, “might” even be part of our structure of governance. The number of deaths of said-to-be drug addicts looks high, but it seems that the operation has been scratching the surface. Practically one year towards the end of his term – this, for me, is what the administration has not accomplished.

And then there is the issue of ENDO. While the Department of Labor under this administration has been giving pro-labor pronouncements, but the issue of contractualization has been to some extent untouched. One can then say that even with this administration’s tough approach to almost all things, economics always has the upper hand over politics. There was a promise in the earlier parts of the presidency that contractualization will be ended, but workers who have been affected by this are yet to see the slightest indication that change is going to come.

I would like to say some words on the totality of the current president’s approach to politics. The totality that I am referring to is the perceived “representation” of Duterte of the non-elites. This is important in any analysis of his presidency because there is a growing number of commentators, even academics, who would say that the reason for Duterte’s stronghold is none other than his different kind of politics that counters what has been a running “elitist” show in this country. Those who read Duterte this way, are trying to offer something novel. Unfortunately, there is nothing new in the reading. Politicians are like products and they all try to come up with a distinct packaging.

There is a reason to believe that the president represents a certain group of people who have been asking for recognition. But I do not find it reasonable to immediately conclude that he represents the non-elites. Philippine society has so many non-elites, and some of them are found not just in Mindanao but also in Visayas and Luzon.

It is possible to say that his “branding” is attractive to those who feel that they are society’s underdogs. But distinction must be made between the real social underdogs on the one hand (who resonate or are emotionally drawn to a political discourse), and, on the other hand, the politician (who is not an underdog) who must strategically use social realities to continually increase the magnetic appeal of their discourse.

So even if some would say that Duterte’s “refashioning” Philippine politics is “radical”, still he remains an actor on the same stage, trying to re-state in different words the same script dictated by the logic of politics.


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