Duterte admin revives Arroyo policies, controversies

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte calls her "ma'am" and claims to owe her "a lot." Gloria Arroyo is back in the limelight hosting state leaders and priests to banquets after nearly 4 years of detention for a plunder case that is now dismissed

Duterte previously revealed he was a "close confidant" of Arroyo back when she was president. These days Arroyo is proving to be a loyal supporter of the administration, ready to defend Duterte from controversies that reflect the ones that also hounded hers.

In his 3rd year in office, Duterte has revived several key policies under Arroyo that former President Benigno Aquino III rejected. 

Duterte and Arroyo are the only post-Marcos presidents to declare martial law. Both warmed to China as loans poured in from Beijing.  

They oversaw sweeping reforms on the country's tax laws with Arroyo's Expanded Value Added Tax (e-VAT) and Duterte's Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) law. Aquino had sin tax but it had limited coverage.

Duterte is also reviving the charter change train – in a way that is reminiscent of the political maneuverings of Arroyo and her political party Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) – although the agenda was also pushed by Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada. 

The killings in the name of Duterte's anti-drug campaign are unprecedented but Arroyo was also held responsible for a spate of killings, mostly for doing nothing against summary executions of political activists allegedly perpetrated by the military. 

These show that Duterte and Arroyo have "similar tendencies," but experts said Duterte is different from Arroyo in the way he has aggressively pushed his agenda.  

The pushback against these highly divisive policies during the time of Arroyo was very important. There is practically no effective opposition these days.

Experts warned of the lasting impact of his policies way beyond his term.

PH on 'brink of authoritarianism'

Duterte's martial law in Mindanao is prolonged. His proclamation on May 23, 2017 – triggered by the siege of Marawi – has been repeatedly extended. It's supposed to last until the end of 2018.

Arroyo declared martial law in 2009 in the aftermath of the gruesome Maguindanao massacre that killed 58 people. Hers covered only the province and lasted only 8 days.

In comparison, Aquino rejected even a declaration of a state of emergency during the siege of Zamboanga City in September 2013.

"I don't think it's in the DNA of President Aquino to declare martial law," said Edwin Lacierda, the former spokesman of Aquino. 

Human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno said it shows "similar tendencies" to "short-circuit the justice system." He said Duterte's anti-drug campaign is also ultimately a "war against the legal system," similar to his assault on institutions that are expected to uphold democracy.

"It's an attempt to supplant justice from the courts and to substitute it with justice coming from the barrels of guns. That kind of justice that you see on the street really breeds more violence. I think that partly explains why killings continue to get worse," Diokno said.

Diokno said the Philippines is already on the "brink of authoritarianism."

"During the time of President Arroyo, there was a very, very strong pushback so that it never reached the point where we were on the brink of really falling into a very strongly authoritarian type of government. Unlike now, in my view, we're already on the brink," said Diokno.

Arroyo: 'Very similar to mine'

Arroyo sees her own China policy coming back under Duterte after Aquino rejected hers. "When I was President, I focused on closer economic and business ties with China. That is the policy of President Duterte today, very similar to mine," she said in a television interview in March.

Arroyo herself shifted from the policy of Estrada, who was behind the grounding of BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal years after Beijing wrested control of Mischief Reef from the Philippines during the time of Fidel Ramos.

China expert Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines said Duterte and Arroyo are similar in terms of "friendliness to China and openness to Chinese investments."

Lacierda said it's "worse" under Duterte. "We have the Hague ruling. We could have enforced that," Lacierda said.

Batongbacal said it remains to be seen how Duterte envisions a proposed joint exploration of the West Philippine Sea and if it will resemble Arroyo's controversial Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) with China and Vietnam. 

Aquino himself was also open to joint exploration before China occupied Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in 2012. Lacierda said Aquino was adamant that Philippine laws should govern the bilateral agreement, which China rejected. 

Batongbacal said the big and importance difference between Duterte and Arroyo is how Duterte has been trying to endear China to the public and how he's managed ties with the US, the country's longtime ally. 

"She (Arroyo) didn't alienate the US," said Batongbacal.

Corruption controversies marred Chinese loans during the Arroyo presidency – the botched NBN-ZTE deal and North Rail projects. Batongbacal said this has not been helpful to Duterte's pivot because they’ve left a lasting negative impression on projects that involve Beijing.

Batongbacal noted how polls indicate that it's not going to be easy to change public opinion towards China even as the military superpower has "changed" and has "cracked down on corruption."

"I think for the general public, it's really not going to change that quickly and not by much," he said.

Duterte's attempts to "oversell" China have also been counterproductive, said Batongbacal. They’re drawing "suspicion and resentment" instead.

"He presents China as a friend but he also says we cannot challenge China in the West Philippine Sea because it will mean war. The message is self-contradictory," he said.

Duterte's sensational popularity has allowed him elbow room to push his agenda. But his satisfaction ratings have dropped as he entered his 3rd year in office.  

The ground he's standing on may no longer be as firm as before. – Rappler.com