IN MY previous column, the inherent insecurity of the Duterte administration due to its heavy-handed response to dissent was highlighted. The piece makes the argument that the continued imposition of martial law and the wholesale attack on the critical press are all indications of the administration’s onion-skilled policy to obvert challenges to their imagined legitimacy.
Instead of nurturing a public space where a healthy arena for debate is seen as necessary hallmarks of democratic practice, it has, gone the route of stifling dissent employing the vast arsenal of government whether these may through brute force using the police or military, or blunt political pressure using media, pork barrel and other spoils of government, and the courts.
But depicting the present terrain of political power through these lenses alone will not give us an accurate and complete picture. While the Duterte administration may display extreme reactions to criticism by responding through its default heavy-handed style, it is also paradoxically fairly insensitive to any shift in public opinion as a result of implemented policies such as the failed drug war, the threatened phase-out of the jeepney, and now the Train tax reform package.
Over the past few weeks, people thought that the new tax reform law will bring about just a few pesos increase in fuel. But finally this week, it has been revealed that the increase at the turn of the new year did not represent as of yet the imposition of the new tax rates on fuel. This week diesel has finally breached the forty peso mark whereas six months ago, the price of a liter was less than 30 pesos. This represents more or less a 25% increase that will sure to have a domino effect on all goods and services. Transport groups are already requesting equivalent or higher increases in minimum fare to recoup the costs of higher fuel prices. The markets have also begun to reflect the effect of higher transport costs in their prices.
Government technocrats of the previous administrations eager to tax oil consumption for revenue could only dream of manipulating oil prices this much before. That is why I have said that the Train package was the wet dream of many Filipino economists eager to resolve the dilemma of revenue growth to fund pump priming the local economy and increase its credit rating.
These certainly speak about the kind of confidence or brashness of the Duterte administration to be unperturbed about the effect on public opinion of this across the board tax increase on oil consumption. It remains to be seen whether the inflationary effect of these measures will lead to the Duterte’s administration’s own undoing but they already have a ready formula to quell public outcry.
This seeming paradox, heavy-handed and sensitive to criticism from political enemies, but brimming with wanton political will in what has shaped to be the administration’s key programs such as the Train law is actually very revealing. It is not a paradox after all because that is the formula being implemented although we had the sequence reversed.
What we must note is that first there is the implementation of an unpopular economic and political policy that is often backed by unscrupulous interests. Then there is the heavy-handed response after to quell dissent or discourage its blooming. The conscription of new media players who represent the same crass and unrefined approach to public discourse is a key element of this formula. The display of insecurity from the heavy-handed response, is actually a smokescreen that has the effect of depicting government as the underdog when the opposite is of the case.
Thus, I change my mind. This government is not insecure after all but actually the opposite. It is brimming with a brash and unbridled confidence over its popularity and power. The implementation of policies that is coupled with seemingly insecure moves to stifle public outcry by shutting down spaces for debate and dumbing down discourse in social media are all part of an elaborate dictatorial formula for the strengthening of Duterte and his cabal’s political hold on power.
Welcome to this strange age when the strongman is made to appear aggrieved and besieged by the sectors he is actually stifling and gagging.