The Left’s unity and struggle with Duterte

Teddy A. Casiño

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The Left’s unity and struggle with Duterte
Extrajudicial killings and the Marcos burial issue will continue to be a recurring source of disagreement. So far, these burning issues have not been decisive in breaking the alliance with Duterte.

In the 2016 elections, the Left, particularly the party list groups and mass organizations under the Makabayang Koalisyon ng Mamamayan, did not endorse the candidacy of then presidential bet Rodrigo Duterte. Despite this, the new President appointed known leftist activists to his Cabinet, resumed peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), and released a number of political dissidents with the promise to release more. 

For those who know Duterte this was not surprising. After all, he always claimed to be a socialist. He was a former member of the Kabataang Makabayan and student of communist party founder Jose Maria Sison. In his years as mayor of Davao City, Duterte established close ties with the NDFP and New People’s Army (NPA) in Mindanao, often facilitating the release of prisoners of war and addressing the concerns of the communities where the revolutionary groups operated. 

As mayor, he gave members of progressive organizations full leeway in exercising their political and civil rights. He even partnered with them on various social projects and advocacies. Despite his sexist attitude towards women, he had good programs for gender equality and women’s empowerment in his city. The strongest and most profound disagreements between him and the Left was on his tolerance, even tacit encouragement, of extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals.

Unfamiliar ground

With Duterte as President, the Left now finds itself in a novel, if unfamiliar situation.

On the one hand, they know that Duterte has become the chief representative of the local ruling classes. He oversees a corrupt and elitist government that has, by and large, served the interests of the country’s oligarchs and foreign powers over that of the ordinary folk. His gutter language notwithstanding, Duterte comes from the same elite, reactionary class of politicians that have lorded it over the country for decades. With his fiery temperament, brutal approach to crime and admiration for the late president Ferdinand Marcos, many fear he is a budding dictator.

On the other hand, Duterte is a nationalist. He is a staunch critic of US imperialism, especially its military interventionism and hypocrisy in upholding human rights and democracy. His background as an activist, a public prosecutor and city mayor have given him profound insights on the plight of the ordinary people and the need for quick and decisive action to address their concerns. He is a populist who, in his desire to serve his people, is not afraid to antagonize the oligarchy or vested foreign interests. His desire for change and social reform has led him enter into serious negotiations with the revolutionary movement. He is open to progressive ideas and programs and even labels himself a socialist.

Thus there are two tendencies in the Duterte presidency: a mainly reactionary tendency and a small, if not narrowing, progressive tendency. In a situation where progressive and revolutionary movements are still given significant space and opportunity to engage with the administration, the Left have refused to simplistically consider Duterte as just another reactionary, US puppet that needs to be ousted. Against all odds, they are actively opposing what is reactionary and anti-people, and pushing for what is progressive and pro-people in his government.

Where the Left stands on issues

To be specific, the Left supports Duterte’s distancing from the United States and his pursuit of an independent foreign policy. This is what sets him apart from previous presidents who played the role as US puppets to the hilt. The Left has always called for an end to our neocolonial relations with the US and for the government to uphold Philippine sovereignty and the national interest above those of any foreign power.

As to China, many leftists are happy with the government’s constructive engagement with China but are wary that China will take advantage of our weaknesses and impose its own imperialist agenda on our country. This is something that they will have to struggle with Duterte and the local comprador class.

Leftists totally support Duterte’s efforts to resume the peace talks with the NDFP, MNLF and MILF in order to address the root causes of the armed conflicts. Negotiations with these revolutionary movements should lead to comprehensive and thoroughgoing agreements on political and socio-economic reforms for the benefit of all Filipinos, especially the marginalized and oppressed.

Leftists support Duterte’s position against the contractualization of labor and for lower income taxes for rank and file employees. They laud his planned policy to impose a moratorium on the conversion of agricultural lands, a policy now being undermined by some members of his cabinet. They appreciate his efforts to improve and widen social services, basic education and support for our overseas workers. They share his campaign against graft and corruption.

In general, leftists share Duterte’s vision of an industrialized Filipino economy that can feed and provide enough jobs and incomes to our people. But how to get there is another thing. They vehemently object to the neoliberal prescriptions of Duterte’s economic team. They are against continued efforts to privatize public utilities and government services, liberalize and deregulate the economy, and allow foreign banks and corporations to dominate and rule the Philippine economy. 

As a matter of principle and practice, the Left objects to Duterte’s endorsement of extrajudicial killings and other shortcuts in the campaign against illegal drugs and criminality. The Communist Party even formally declared its non-support for Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Various leftist organizations have repeatedly expressed their concern and objection to a brutal campaign that targets the victims, especially the poor. They want greater efforts in cleaning up the Philippine National Police, the Armed Forces and the Judiciary. They want more focus on rehabilitating drug users and educating the public on the dangers of drug use.

As the most persistent enemy of the Marcos dictatorship, the Left certainly objects to the burial of the former tyrant at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. They have been at the forefront of organizing rallies and filing petitions in the Supreme Court against the burial. This as a matter of principle and a deeply personal issue for many activists who suffered at the hands of the Marcos dictatorship. 

A constructive and principled struggle

After Marcos’ ouster In 1986, the Left also entered into a critical engagement with the Cory Aquino government. It was short-lived, however, due to the pro-US, pro-oligarch, and anti-communist stance of Mrs. Aquino and the increasing pressure from the Right, especially the AFP, to “unsheathe the sword of war” against the Left.

This time, it is unclear how long the critical alliance with Duterte will last. A key factor would be the peace negotiations with the NDFP and whether Duterte can deliver on existing agreements and pull off new ones on socio-economic and political reforms. He will need to hold back the rabid war mongers in the AFP who are itching for an all-out war.

Another crucial factor would be his efforts to end US neocolonial relations and uphold independence and sovereignty not only in military and security matters but on the equally important areas of diplomacy and economic policy. It is expected that there will be fierce but constructive debates on these issues. 

Of course the issue of extrajudicial killings and the Marcos burial will continue to be a recurring source of disagreement. It remains to be seen but so far, these burning issues have not been decisive in breaking the alliance with Duterte.

Ironically, the rabidly anti-communist Aquino-LP faction of the ruling elite are egging the Left to drop its alliance with Duterte and join them in a cynical effort to weaken Duterte and possibly replace him with Vice President Leni Robredo. Unfortunately for them, the Left is well aware of their duplicity and have refused to be used in such a ploy.

In the meantime, there will be no calling for Duterte’s ouster or burning of his effigies. Instead, expect heated but constructive engagements from the Left. The new government is only six months old. In this fluid period of unity and struggle, many good things can still happen. –


Teddy Casiño served as the partylist representative of Bayan Muna for 3 terms, from 2004-2013. Prior to his stint in Congress, he was secretary-general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan and was a columnist for BusinessWorld. He earned his degree in sociology from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños in 1993.

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