Engaging Duterte, engaging ourselves

Carmel V. Abao
It is not enough to be simply 'pro' or 'anti' Duterte. The mob-inspired, troll-like, self-righteous type of positioning and conversing will not cut it.

The guards have changed. That, by itself, is change. Indeed, “change is coming” but we need to ask: will it be change from above or from below? Will change be just about President Duterte delivering on his promises or will it be the result of struggle? Will struggle be even possible under the Duterte presidency? 

Most observers of politics, especially political scientists like me, often focus on political alliances in assessing political conjunctures. We read political developments, including the connection between elections and governance, in terms of allies and enemies. We tend to assume that governance is mainly about the winner paying back election allies (especially financial contributors) and retaliating against election opponents. We are the first to say that governance is “payback and resbak” or “weather-weather lang yan” or “winner takes all.”

It is not difficult to see “who’s in” and “who’s out” in the Duterte administration. Who’s out:  the Liberal Party (LP) coalition (although this is also because the LP was very quick to self-destruct right after the elections) and the yellow crowd (especially the elites in this crowd), the Binay dynasty, privately-owned media, and, the Catholic Church hierarchy (Duterte still has allies among the Catholic clergy in Mindanao).

Who’s in: PDP-Laban, Nationalista Party (NP), Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), provincial political and economic elites, the CPP-NPA-NDF (and the Makabayan group), government-run media, social media, Muslim Mindanaoans, non-Catholic religious denominations (e.g., Quiboloy) and, of course, Duterte’s hometown team.

The examination of allies and enemies is a must because the level of conflict and compromise in society is determined, to a very large extent, by the dynamics of traditional political players. In the current conjuncture, such examination will shed light on the sources and extent of support that President Duterte can generate for his governance. 

It is necessary, however, to examine emerging political spaces as well because the political dynamics that unfold in these spaces can, and do, in fact, go beyond the traditional political alliances.   

Not everything that happens in our politics is caused solely or primarily by the actions of those in (formal) power. Change happens not just because of the political class, but also because of organized and unorganized social forces that support and/or challenge the political class. Nathan Quimpo, a Filipino political scientist, has a term for this: contested democracy.   

The new administration is just a month-old but there are clear signs that it is intent on making good its campaign promise that “change is coming.” I think the promised change is now taking the form of new political spaces where new and old political players – and perhaps, even ordinary citizens like us – can engage each other.

These spaces are “new” not because they have never been opened before. They are new because for the first time they are legitimized by no less than the President.   

New, anti-elite spaces 

In this piece I argue that the Duterte presidency has opened the following political spaces: (1) anti-criminality, (2) peace with the Left, (3) federalism and constitutional reform, (4) anti-mining and anti-coal (5) anti-labor contractualization, and  6) anti-US positioning.

I further claim that most of these spaces represent anti-elite agendas, and as such, present new and promising, although highly contentious, arenas of struggle.  

Anti-criminality. No president, post-Marcos, has made anti-criminality, specifically anti-drugs, his or her centerpiece program of government. Former president Joseph Estrada created anti-organized crime task forces but he did not make anti-criminality his number one priority. That President Duterte is doing this is understandable – given his background as Davao City Mayor for more than 20 years. Public safety is often the first order of business of a local chief executive because “the local” is a community and members of the community expect local government to provide them with security.   

Anti-criminality is anti-elite in the sense that it is not the agenda of the elite. The elites live in gated communities, have personal bodyguards and chauffeurs, and can easily provide security for themselves and their families. Members of the lower and middle classes, however, cannot afford such private provision of security mechanisms. They only have the state to provide that for them.  

The lower/middle classes want crime to end because they are often at the receiving end of such crimes. They are against theft because literally, they cannot afford to lose their few prized possessions (they hurt when they lose that cellphone or that motorcycle). They are against drugs because literally, they cannot afford to get their lives and their children’s lives ruined because of drug addiction (and the drug pushers often live right across the street where they live). 

What the lower/middle classes seek is just to be left alone so they can go about the daily grind of sustaining themselves and their families. Being “left alone” includes not having to worry about falling prey to criminals.

Unfortunately, the Duterte government’s implementation of the anti-crime campaign cancels out its anti-elite character. The alleged drug users and pushers who have been killed in the course of the campaign have all been poor (evidence: some funeral parlors have been complaining – on national news networks – that they are losing money because their clients now consist mainly of the victims of government’s anti-drugs campaign; the families of these victims apparently are not claiming the bodies due to lack of funds so the funeral parlors end up shelling out money to dispose of the dead bodies). Some alleged drug lords and protectors have been rounded up, but the handling of these “bigger fish” has obviously not been as brazen or as brutal. 

Peace and the Left. This piece focuses on the peace process between the Duterte government and the Left. This is not to say that the space for peace with the MILF has closed, just that it wasn’t Duterte – it was PNoy – who opened that space. What Duterte seems to be promising is the achievement of a peace agreement that will finally resolve the decades-long armed conflict in Mindanao.  

Negotiations with the Left were also attempted by the previous administration but unfortunately, early on, this did not prosper. The impending peace negotiations between the Duterte administration and the CPP-NPA-NDF is a new political space because it will be done within the context of an emerging political alliance given President Duterte’s recent appointment of Left personalities in his Cabinet.

What may be “new” is the fact that the (this) Left now trusts the President that it is negotiating with –  understandably so because of the concessions that the President has already given to them. President Duterte, meanwhile, has maintained a very friendly demeanor towards the Left.

The peace process, however, will be successful only if the Duterte government agrees to address the root causes of the insurgency and the CPP-NPA-NDF agrees to give up armed struggle. That trajectory is what needs to be pushed from within and from outside the Duterte administration. 

The Left, by virtue of its adherence to the Marxist ideology, is anti-elite. That President Duterte has opened a space for the Left is thus also indicative of his anti-elite agenda. 

Federalism. Constitutional reform is a political space that has been open since the time of President Fidel V. Ramos. Only President Duterte, however, has advocated for federalism as the main reason to push for constitutional reform. That the President is pushing for federalism at the beginning – and not in the middle or end – of his term is a sign that he is serious with this reform. He is also the first to accommodate the idea of having a constitutional convention instead of a constituent assembly as the means for charter change. 

Federalism is not anti-elite per se. It is just against a particular type of elite: the national elites. In the unitary set-up, the people grant power only to the central government. In federalism, the people grant power to two authorities: the central (federal) government and the component parts (the “states”).    

In federalism, the local elites can be strengthened and the national elites weakened because the powers of the “states” are expanded, while the central government’s power to dictate what the component parts can or cannot do is reduced.    

This is the debate that we, the public, have to undertake: how do we make the federalism agenda a genuinely anti-elite agenda and not simply a strategy to transfer power from national elites to local elites? How do we ensure that the shift to federalism will solve longstanding problems and not just create new ones?    

The points for debate on the federalism proposal are wide-ranging and the task at hand is to make sure that the debate becomes a broad-based one. The openness of the Duterte government to having a constitutional convention instead of a constituent assembly should be supported since the former provides a venue for more direct participation of citizens in shaping the new charter.  

Anti-coal and anti-mining. This space has long been opened, i.e., since the time Ramos when debates on the log ban, mining, and coal started to intensify. President Duterte’s appointment of a staunch anti-coal and anti-mining advocate to the DENR post signals a further opening of this space. It also shows that the Duterte government is ready to engage big business head-on.

The anti-coal and anti-mining campaigns represent an anti-elite agenda because it is the elites – big businesses – that own the coal and mining companies. There is now space to regulate these big businesses for the protection of the environment. There is also now space for environmental groups to articulate and push reforms that need to be done in the arena of environmental protection. 

Anti-labor contractualization. Like the anti-coal and anti-mining agendas, this agenda is meant to benefit the non-elites (workers) and regulate the elites. The difference is that labor contractualization involves not just big businesses but also small businesses that hire contractuals. Thus, the potential resistance is likely to be more diffused and widespread than the resistance that is to be expected in the anti-coal and anti-mining campaigns. Moreover, fufilling this agenda will require not just the “regulatory” route (i.e., stopping the abuse) but also the “enabler” route since government will have to help small businesses. 

This new political space will also allow the government and the public to discuss what exactly the rights of a contractual should be and whether or not contractuals should really be treated differently from regular workers. In this connection, some European cases can probably guide us in our discussion (e.g., contractual work is allowed but contractual workers have the same rights as regular workers, including the right to join unions).    

Anti-US positioning. Even during his campaign, President Duterte already displayed some aversion towards US intervention in the country’s affairs. When the US ambassador to the Philippines commented on the President’s rape joke, Duterte dared the US to cut diplomatic ties with the Philippines. He also declared that he would not seek US assistance in the territorial dispute with China. 

Duterte is the first president to have criticized the US openly. While this open criticism may not be commendable in the realm of international diplomacy, it signals the possible opening of a space where the Philippines can finally craft an autonomous foreign policy. 

It remains to be seen, however, whether President Duterte will indeed pursue an “autonomous” policy given his and DFA Secretary Yasay’s recent positioning vis-a-vis China. It could still happen that the Duterte government’s foreign policy will simply entail the shifting of allegiances from one hegemonic power to another. The space to debate on this, however, seems to be now open and should be utilized.

Human rights and Duterte’s approach to governance

MANY FIRSTS. Presumptive winner Rodrigo Duterte is set to be the first president from Mindanao, among other firsts. Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

The new political spaces opened by President Duterte present opportunities for positive changes. If these spaces are maximized, we could, in fact, have safer streets and more secure homes, local development, peace in Mindanao, peace with the Left, regular rather than contractual work, a more sustainable environment and improved national defense.  

This is why the Duterte administration is perceived by many to be different (i.e., anti-elite, decisive) and to hold so much promise.  

Moreover, President Duterte has been presenting a persona that lends further credibility to his anti-elite agenda and the decisiveness of his government. Simple. No frills.No fuss. No niceties. A lot of cursing. 

But here’s the rub.    

The promised changes come with a hefty prize: human lives.     

In the first week of Duterte’s administration, more than 70 suspected drug users were killed and 5 generals were publicly named and shamed as drug lord protectors. In the same week, Duterte allies in the House of Representatives filed bills to restore the death penalty and to reduce the age of criminal liability from 15 to 9 years old.   

Thus, while the Duterte administration opened a number of new spaces, it is closing one vital space – the space for the protection of human rights. The anti-drugs drive comes with a clear message to the public: government will provide you with safety but you must allow government to kill those who are deemed threats to your safety.  

The anti-contractualization campaign comes with a clear bargain with trade unions: government will make sure that contractualization ends but trade unions must stop being militant. 

That, to me, sums up President Duterte’s approach to governance and reveals the President’s style of patronage. It is a new and distinct kind. It is still “patronage” because it entails a relationship between two unequal entities –  the powerful patron and the clients in need.

It is “new and distinct” (at least in the post-Marcos era) because the exchange between the patron (Duterte) and the client (citizens) is very specific and purposive: limitless power of the patron in exchange for the economic rights and safety of the clients. In the context of anti-criminality, limitless power means license to kill. In the context of anti-contractualization, it means the silence of unions. 

As it turns out, many citizens accept this exchange. There is no massive public outrage over the spate of summary executions done in the name of the anti-drug campaign, and this, in itself, is indicative of public acceptance (not to mention that Duterte’s net trust rating is at 79%, according to a Social Weather Stations survey conducted from June 24-27, 2016).  

This absence of massive outrage may be a function of a number of things. First, the economic rights and safety of so many citizens have been compromised for too long that they will now bargain even with the devil just to attain them. Second, the common folk’s understanding of human rights is limited and shallow – it does not extend to the fundamentality of human rights; it does not include the connection between economic rights and human rights.  

Third, the Makabayan group, the traditional flagbearer of human rights advocacy (since the Marcos era) has been very cautious on this issue, most likely because of its alliance with President Duterte and the promise of peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA-NDF. Fourth, the victims of the extrajudicial killings come from families that are too poor to voice out any resistance. 

Critical engagement

The appropriate attitude towards the Duterte government – or any government for that matter – should not be one of blind support or blanket opposition but critical engagement. As citizens, we should “support the beneficial” and “reject the harmful”. Simultaneous cooperation and resistance is possible, maybe even advisable.    

It is not enough to be simply “pro” or “anti” Duterte. We have to be able to identify which priorities and strategies of the Duterte administration need to be supported, altered or rejected, and, publicly converse around these concerns. The mob-inspired, troll-like, self-righteous type of positioning and conversing will not cut it.  

We have to define our own bottomlines. In engaging Duterte, we also need to engage ourselves: should we embrace “order” or “development” or “peace” at the expense of human lives and individual and collective freedoms? Is this really a necessary, inescapable bargain? 

The pattern of our dominant collective political behavior is clear: our bottomlines and actions are based largely on exasperation. In 2010, majority voted for PNoy because they were exasperated with the GMA government. 

This year, majority voted for Duterte because they were exasperated with the PNoy government. Right now, majority have accepted Duterte’s drastic measures out of exasperation. Can we not break this pattern and objectify instead what needs to be supported, altered and rejected  – despite our exasperation?   

It is quite obvious that the anti-elite agendas of President Duterte are worthy of support and the political spaces that he has opened must be maximized. It is also obvious that what needs to be rejected is the trade off that President Duterte is offering: government’s license to kill in exchange for safety, and, public acquiescence in exchange for economic rights.

Moreover, it is plain to see that the main means by which government intends to keep its part of the bargain is through the empowerment (read: militarization) of the police.    

This much has to be made clear to the President: his agenda may be agreeable but his ways are unacceptable. President Duterte should also be convinced that discarding his militaristic ways will not necessarily lessen his effectiveness as a leader or diminish his power. We, ourselves, have to be convinced of this.  

If President Duterte sticks to his ways and the majority continues to lend him unconditional support, and, the dead bodies of poor people pile up, we will have a dilemma in our midst. Where will resistance come from? Who will resist?  

For sure, resistance will not come from the traditional political players. There is a clear absence of a mainstream political opposition, especially in the Lower House. In the Senate, the most that we will likely see/hear will be a few, if not subtle voices of resistance.

Duterte’s legislative support is assured and his militaristic strategies, in fact, could be institutionalized through legislation. In such event, the only other institutional resort will be judicial oversight, but the judiciary can act only on actual complaints and therefore, most likely, will not be a driver of resistance.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), meanwhile, has been visibly performing its constitutional mandate by taking strong positions on and investigating complaints of human rights violations but it is in a bind. The CHR’s mandate is to implement the state’s obligation to protect the human rights of its citizens, but how exactly can it fulfill that mandate when the Head of State himself refuses to recognize said state obligation? 

As for the non-mainstream traditional opposition such as the Makabayan group/CPP-NPA-NDF, as mentioned earlier, it has been quite cautious on the issue of human rights abuses because of the peace negotiations and the inclusion of some of its key personalities in government. 

There are some signals, though, of resistance in the trade union front as evidenced, for example, by the KMU positioning vis-a-vis the Dutertes in the Davao City local government over the labor dispute in the Nakashin factory.

The rest of the Left and civil society, especially the women’s groups, have also been vocal about their discontent but because of their fragmented character and because of the objective conditions, they have not been able to scale up this discontent to the level of popular dissent.   

Resistance will have to come “from below” then, not from the mainstream or the non-mainstream traditional opposition. But who exactly now constitutes “the below”? Who will mobilize them? Or are they self-mobilizing? Who will convince them that they need not accept President Duterte’s bargain? Or can they arrive at that conclusion by themselves? How are they to be persuaded that human rights are about shared, not just individual freedoms, and therefore non-negotiable? Or do they already know that? 

I do not have the answers. All I know is that change solely “from above” will not work. I know because in the past few weeks alone, despite the rampant killings done by the Duterte government in the name of public safety, I do not feel safe. I also do not see that the public is safe. Do you? – Rappler.com

The author teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University