Duterte administration

The Duterte Promise: How far ‘tunay na pagbabago’ got us

Pia Ranada
The Duterte Promise: How far ‘tunay na pagbabago’ got us
Six years ago, a tough-talking mayor from Mindanao promised 'real change.' Here's a look at what promises were kept, and what cost they came with.

MANILA, Philippines – When Rodrigo Duterte burst into the national scene in 2016, many had not seen the likes of him before.

A politician who cursed with gusto, not sparing even the Pope.

A man who joked about Viagra and raping women, treating decency like a line drawn in sand.

An elected official who promised to kill the addicts, just as he would slash government red tape and kick the corrupt.

He was the vessel of change Filipinos thirsted for, and in May 2016, more than 16 million voted him president. He got 39% of votes cast and 6 million more votes than his predecessor’s anointed one.

Malacañang has not been the same since. 

Tinud-anay nga kabag-uhan. Mao kana ang tumong sa atong pang-gobyerno (Real change. This is the direction of our government),” said Duterte, the first Mindanaoan president, in his inaugural address.

The septuagenarian President’s strength was stubbornness, even his closest aides say.

WAY BACK WHEN. President Rodrigo Duterte holds his first Cabinet meeting on June 30, 2016, in Malacañang’s Aguinaldo State Dining Room. Malacañang photo

Duterte was unbudgeable when it came to issues and sectors he cared about – drugs, cops, security, migrant workers.

His first promise: speed.

Reduction of processing times and requirements for government transactions was his first marching order to department heads. He backed it up by signing the Ease of Doing Business Act, a law that does away with piecemeal documentary requirements, standardizes when government offices are to act on applications, and imposes a zero-contact policy for transactions. But weeks before his presidency ends, the Ombudsman slaps five of his anti-red tape officials with suspension over allegations of graft and corruption.

A man who hated seeing the poor waiting for days in line signed laws extending the validity period of passports and driver’s licenses. He turned an office in Malacañang into a call center for corruption complaints, reachable by dialing 8888.

His infrastructure push, to “Build, Build, Build” more roads, bridges, and public transportation, pulled up annual infra spending to an average of 6% of GDP from 2017 to 2019, from the 2% of past administrations.

But while the Department of Public Works and Highways and Department of Transportation have gotten much larger budgets, they’ve been called out persistently for underspending. Only 12 of Build, Build, Build’s 119 flagship projects have been completed. Because of the unrealistic scale of some of its biggest projects, Duterte’s Cabinet had to revise the original list. 

One major unfulfilled infra promise is the Mindanao Railway, which remains a dream even in the term of Mindanao’s first president.

Duterte’s biggest accomplishment for Mindanao is the creation of the Bangsamoro region, the crowning glory of decades of peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front initiated by then-president Fidel V. Ramos and sealed 18 years later, during the Benigno Aquino III administration. With the implementation of the peace agreement, MILF rebels laid down their guns and began the work of running what is envisioned to be a more responsive and efficient autonomous government in a region long rocked by violence.

A man in a rush, that’s how Duterte wanted to appear. To get things done, he appointed based on loyalty and familiarity. Hence, his preference for retired military men even for the most complex, in some cases, highly-technical, civilian government positions. Soldiers obeyed first and asked later.

Seeing red

Speed and impact were the priority in a drug war that officially killed 7,884 but which human rights watchdogs say led to the deaths of as many as 30,000 people. The campaign pushed 1.2 million people to surrender to government, many lining up in barangay basketball courts and gymnasiums to do so. The police claim over 25,000 barangays have been “cleared” of illegal drug use, as of April 2022.

“Tokhang” became the Filipino Word of the Year in 2018.

Confidential lists of drug suspects were announced on the presidential podium, “matrices” presented in Palace press conferences – only for inaccuracies to be revealed after the damage had been done.

war on drugs
BLOODIED STREETS. A policeman checks a drug suspect killed in an operation. Photo by Alecs Ongcal

Police generals who killed dozens of drug suspects in a single raid were given medals. Cops who led what investigators concluded was a “rubout” of a suspected drug lord were given a public exoneration by no less than the President.

The thousands killed in mysterious drug-related circumstances were simply swept under a rug labeled “deaths under investigation.”

Scrutiny came only after the shocking headlines – when a South Korean businessman was murdered in the police’s own headquarters, when CCTV footage revealed a teenager’s murder during a drug raid, when the International Criminal Court and United Nations human rights commission came knocking.

Only less than 1% of the officially-tallied deaths – or 61 out of 7,884 – are being investigated by the justice department.

There was no time to help the thousands of grieving widows, mothers, girlfriends, and newly-orphaned children. No justice for the many who were “collateral damage,” just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But for the rest, the lucky ones, the blood bought peace and quiet. It proved to them one other thing: what Duterte wants, he gets.

The focus on anti-drug enforcement was reflected in the budget. The Philippine National Police, primary enforcer of the campaign, saw a 118% increase in its budget from the years 2016 to 2022, compared to what it got from 2010 to 2015. They called Duterte’s term the “golden era of the PNP” during a two-day “Duterte Legacy” Summit last May 31.

Yet while streets in slums ran with blood, billions worth of shabu from China would be smuggled into the country, stored in magnetic lifters or boxes of tea.

Some were confiscated, much more were not – a failure of enforcement that remains unsolved until now.

Meanwhile, the men who were in charge, Nicanor Faeldon, Isidro Lapeña, and company, were given new posts in government

“I was not elected to serve the interests of any one person or any group or any one class. I serve everyone and not only one,” said Duterte in his inaugural speech.

But in his drug war, the poor don’t get their day in court while the powerful don’t need one.

As with the drug suspects, so with the communist threat. His infamous anti-communist task force, NTF-ELCAC, says 27,000 rebels surrendered to the government. Some P33 billion was given to the task force’s Barangay Development Program from 2021 to 2022 for the construction of roads, school buildings, and other development infrastructure in over 2,000 villages, in the hopes of weaning them away from the influence of rebels.

FEARSOME LAW. Groups opposed to the 2020 anti-terror law march to the Supreme Court on February 2, 2021. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

But equally zealous was the task force in baselessly accusing some critics of communist links. Celebrities, journalists, progressive lawmakers, charity organizers, opposition figures, doctors, and more have been red-tagged – fueling a climate of fear.

The Anti-Terrorism Act Duterte signed at the behest of the military men in his Cabinet has only given the President more tools to inspire fear in any government critic. Still, some say the measure is necessary to better equip the country in targeting extremist groups, an anxiety fueled by the Marawi siege by the Maute Group that pushed Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao.

Loud moves

Duterte did many loud and big things.

He closed down Boracay Island for half a year – fixing up neglected sewerage systems and cleaning up beaches, but also leaving hundreds of businesses and workers reeling and making a P2-billion dent on economic gains.

He threatened “war” against Canada over its garbage stranded in Philippine dump sites. Two months later, the trash was on its way back, a win for the country and bragging rights for the President.

And when a Singapore court ruled that his government had to pay the Ayalas and Manny Pangilinan billions of pesos, he lost no time ordering a full review of the concession deals so that those private firms would be the ones to pay.

No other president since the dictator Marcos had shaken up the business elites as much as Duterte.

His vendetta against “oligarchs” made for an unpredictable business environment that spooked corporations and investors.

His supporters, and the propaganda machinery they were targets of, used the attacks to weave a false narrative of Duterte as a man who would take from the rich and give to the poor.

Lucio Tan’s Philippine Airlines was made to pay a longstanding P6-billion debt. The Wongchukings of Mighty Corporation had to cough up P25 billion as settlement for tax liabilities.

The Robin Hood narrative would be spun by Duterte in his shutdown of ABS-CBN, maneuvered by his allies in Congress amid a pandemic and adding to the millions left jobless. 

Duterte depicted the closure of the country’s largest broadcasting network as a middle finger to the elites. But its real impact was less access to information for remote communities and a Damocles’ sword over the heads of critical journalists.

Sacred cows

For all his talk of being impervious to private interests, Duterte had his sacred cows. 

He defended his good friend and campaign donor Dennis Uy from allegations of preferential treatment in his company’s buyout of Malampaya gas field shares after the Senate raised red flags. 

Incidentally, Uy’s other company won the franchise to operate the country’s third telecommunications player, a major campaign promise of Duterte’s.

CONTROVERSIAL PALS. In this 2016 photo, Rodrigo Duterte sits with his friend and ‘spiritual adviser’ Apollo Quiboloy, who has since been indicted for sex trafficking in the US and gotten some ABS-CBN frequencies. Malacañang photo

Religious leader Apollo Quiboloy, spiritual adviser and shooting buddy to the President, got some of ABS-CBN’s frequencies. Until the end of his presidency, Duterte gave Quiboloy the privilege of one-on-one presidential interviews, with nary a comment on the US sex trafficking charges his friend is facing.

Other ABS-CBN frequencies would end up with the firm of Manuel Villar, yet another billionaire ally of Duterte’s. The government insists no laws were violated, no preferential treatment given.

The same defense would be used for a small, inexperienced medical firm called Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation, which became the country’s biggest pandemic supplier.

When documents showed Pharmally’s links to Duterte’s Chinese economic adviser Michael Yang, the President would insist everything was aboveboard. Yang and his associates were just there at the right place, at the right time, when the Philippines needed them the most, he said.

Popular populist

The  other side of Duterte’s “matapang” (fierce) persona was “malasakit” (compassion), and he showed it in the laws he signed and programs he implemented.

Defying the economists in his Cabinet, he signed the law providing free tertiary state education and a measure increasing pension for the elderly. He signed the Universal Health Care Act and a law that exempts smallholder farmers from paying irrigation fees.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he made sure government footed the bill for the hotel stays of thousands of overseas Filipino workers who waited weeks for their test results. He fulfilled his promise of setting up a Department of Migrant Workers, amid criticism that problems could be solved just by implementing existing laws better and improving coordination between relevant agencies.

“He has set the bar so high when it comes to OFW protection and welfare…. There is that emotional connection to him that our OFWs believe in him, in his leadership,” incoming migrant workers secretary Susan Ople, a longtime OFW rights advocate, told Rappler.

Duterte’s government gave out monthly cash assistance to poor families in lockdown areas, though groups and lawmakers have said larger aid programs and economic stimulus packages were called for. When fuel prices soared in early 2022, Duterte pushed the finance department to increase the monthly cash assistance to P500, from P200.

After months of controversy about health workers not getting paid properly or punctually, Duterte signed a law requiring the state to provide these benefits during times of health emergencies.

For Duterte’s beloved soldiers and police, one of his first pet projects was to ensure their higher take-home pay. The lowest-ranked uniformed personnel’s base pay is now double what it was before. This, however, has drastically distorted the government salary standardization system and compounded the military pension debt.

His government’s efforts to bring down poverty worked, for a time. The poverty rate dipped to 16.6% in 2018, translating to nearly six million Filipinos lifted from poverty since 2015.

But the pandemic lockdowns ruined the gains. Come 2021 and after Duterte implemented one of the world’s longest lockdowns, the poverty rate rose to 23.7% or around five million more in poverty than there were in 2018.

GOVERNMENT AID. Poor residents of Manila get cash assistance from the government during a pandemic lockdown. Rappler

Duterte’s popular “pro-poor” policies are also a ticking budgetary time bomb he has not made preparations for. 

The free tertiary education law, which will cost P100 billion a year, has been called fiscally unsustainable by Duterte’s own economic team. There is no funding source for much of the health care workers’ benefits and compensation in the 2022 national budget. But the biggest headache of all is military pension, which, thanks to Duterte’s salary increase for soldiers and cops, means the government has to shell out P800 billion a year. The amount needed for the duration of the Marcos administration is equivalent to another entire national budget.

Duterte is well aware of the fiscal strain. He’s had to make some unpopular decisions in response, like allowing online cockfighting, which he eventually rescinded, and lifting the open-pit mining ban. But such measures are not enough.

And while some people got assistance during the pandemic, the budgets for infrastructure and military have been much larger than funds allocated for COVID-19 response – proof, say critics, of the skewed priorities of Duterte’s government. 

Limits of political will

Duterte got many long-pending measures passed in his time – tax reform, rice tariffication law, coconut levy fund law, and fixed terms for military chiefs, among others.

But there were several he failed to deliver, like a national land use law, ending contractualization, and a shift to a federal system of government.

His political will and avowed fearlessness fell short of preventing China aggression against Filipino fishermen and soldiers in the West Philippine Sea.

A lack of decisiveness and clear strategy led to missed opportunities in containing the COVID-19 pandemic early on. The state’s failure to pay hospitals for coronavirus care, stopping public transportation without any fallback for essential commuters, and late compensation for health workers caused undue suffering for millions of Filipinos.

Duterte delivered change in many ways. But many things also remain unchanged. Duterte’s ways were unconventional but he largely acted like a traditional politician, with his patronage of allies and attacks on critics. 

Likely one unquantifiable “change” that will haunt the Philippines long after his term is the erosion of democracy under his watch – the vicious divisiveness in politics, the disinformation networks his allies spawned and he rewarded, the self-censorship and fear poisoning media, the impunity in the drug war.

At the end of his presidency, it’s clear that the “true change” he promised had its limits, and its cost. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.