Duterte’s falling out with the Left

Teddy Casiño
The contradiction between unity and struggle, between working with the government on some issues but fighting it on others, was a balancing act that many found confusing and difficult.

Like many marriages, President Rodrigo Duterte’s alliance with the Left started out like a dream.

Despite Duterte’s boast of being the only leftist and socialist presidential candidate in the 2016 elections, the Left did not support his candidacy. Yet days upon winning the election, he offered 4 Cabinet posts (Dole, DAR, DENR, DSWD) to the communist-led National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), pledged to resume peace negotiations with the revolutionary group, and vowed to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Despite standing disagreements on his avowed preference for extrajudicial killings as a way of solving criminality, his patently neoliberal policies as articulated by his economic team, and his dirty mouth, the national democratic left decided to enter into an alliance with Duterte. The hope was that by joining the administration, there would be greater opportunities to push for meaningful reforms and ensure that the marginalized sectors – workers, farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, and urban poor – would get better services and be given a bigger voice in policy making.

Besides, by working with a newly-elected president whose mantra was “Change is Coming,” there was a chance that Duterte’s leftist posturing would actually convert into concrete policies and actions.

The war on drugs

Barely two months into office, however, the cracks started to show. After initially supporting Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs, the Communist Party issued a strongly-worded statement on August 12, 2016, warning that Duterte’s drug war “has rapidly spiraled into a frenzied campaign of extrajudicial killings and vigilante murders perpetrated by the police and by police-linked criminal syndicates.” 

“Duterte has become so full of himself and intoxicated with the vast power he is not used to handle that he thinks he can get away with upturning the criminal judicial system and denouncing people for defending human rights,” the CPP said.

Citing the experiences of Thailand and Mexico, the CPP warned that the war on drugs was “bound to fail” since it “does not address the socio-economic roots of the problem.”

It said efforts by the New People’s Army to arrest and disarm drug trade operators and protectors “will no longer be considered as cooperative with the Duterte regime’s undemocratic and anti-people ‘war on drugs.'” The NDFP, for its part, repeatedly raised its concerns on the issue of the drug-related and other extrajudicial killings in its series of talks with the government. 

Admittedly, many leftist organizations were caught flat-footed in responding to Duterte’s “war on drugs.” The quantity and frequency of the killings and threats were simply too overwhelming to merit an immediate organized and systematic response. That the families and friends of the victims were themselves impoverished, vilified and threatened, plus unorganized and unused to political engagements, made it doubly difficult to create an organized form of resistance.

On top of all that was the existence of an alliance with Duterte on other issues equally important to the Left. The contradiction between unity and struggle, between working with the government on some issues but fighting it on others, was a balancing act that many found confusing and difficult. 

In any case, Duterte merely ignored and badmouthed the Left and all the other critics of his drug war. Just as he continues till this day. 

Marcos burial

The next crack in the alliance was over Duterte’s decision to allow the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Leftists and their organizations were among those who organized the rallies and protests against the burial and initiated one among several petitions in the Supreme Court questioning Duterte’s decision. 

Again, Duterte refused to heed the views and sentiments of those opposed to a Marcos restoration and revision of history.

Neoliberal economic policies

From Day 1, leftists had questioned Duterte’s choice of economic managers who all adhered to the free market, neoliberal economic framework of the previous administrations. This was to be a recurring irritant between his economic team, who insisted on greater privatization, higher taxes and cuts on social services, and leftist groups who advocated the opposite.

Being a populist, Duterte could not ignore the clamor of the left-influenced marginalized sectors on issues like agrarian reform, labor contractualization, free education, lower taxes, mining, housing and social services. Thus, while his economic policies basically remained neoliberal and diametrically opposed to the socialist-oriented Left, he gave token concessions on these issues but only in the face of persistent and militant efforts by leftist organizations from the urban poor, peasant, workers, indigenous peoples and youth sector.  

All out war and martial law

As disagreements with his drug war and his adulation of the Marcoses continued to fester, a third crack opened in February, when the NPA lifted its 4-month long unilateral ceasefire after several skirmishes with government troops. The NPA accused the AFP of encroaching on some 500 guerrilla fronts, terrorizing residents in NPA-controlled areas, and provoking armed clashes.

In retaliation, Duterte “cancelled” the peace talks and demanded a bilateral ceasefire agreement as a condition for further talks. His defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, followed through with a declaration of an “all out war” against the rebels. 

Despite Duterte’s insistence on a ceasefire agreement and a stop to the NPA’s recruitment and collection of revolutionary taxes as preconditions for the talks, the 4th round of the talks still pushed through in early April this year. The peace panels on both sides agreed to sidestep Duterte’s conditions just so the talks would continue. It was evident by this time that the national security cluster led by former generals Hermogenes Esperon and Lorenzana was dictating the government’s handling of the talks. And Duterte, just like previous presidents, was primarily after the rebels’ laying down of arms. Addressing the roots of the armed conflict would be a secondary objective, if at all.

In the weeks following Lorenzana’s “all out war” declaration, rural communities in Mindanao, especially Lumad communities, were complaining about increased military operations in their areas. Human rights groups were documenting increased incidents of extrajudicial killings, aerial bombings of civilian communities, occupation of schools and other public buildings, threats and harassment from soldiers and paramilitary groups.

The last straw that finally broke the alliance was Duterte’s declaration of martial law in the entire Mindanao archipelago and his accompanying acquiescence to US military intervention in resolving not just the Marawi siege, but other internal conflicts in Mindanao, too. It was clear from Duterte’s Proclamation 216, General Order 1, and related issuances that martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus was meant to neutralize not just the Islamic extremists that took over Marawi but also the communist movement and their sympathizers in the island’s rebel strongholds. This was articulated by both Defense Secretary Lorenzana and AFP Chief of Staff Eduardo Año.  

In reaction to Lorenzana’s and Año’s statements, the CPP ordered the NPA to intensify its tactical offensives against AFP units engaged in counterinsurgency operations under martial law. This in turn was used by Duterte as a pretext to withdraw from the 5th round of talks scheduled on May 27 to June 1, effectively scuttling the talks.

In fact, the government and NDFP peace panels were already in The Netherlands for the talks a few days after the May 23 declaration of martial law. The NDFP even offered to help the government in containing the ISIS-inspired Maute/Abu Sayyaf Group, an offer totally ignored by Duterte.

Open hostility 

Duterte’s insistence on his brutal and ineffective war on drugs, his adulation for Marcos, disdain for human rights, adherence to neoliberal economic policies, and scuttling of the peace talks would come to a head on July 24, 2017, the President’s second State of the Nation Address (SONA).

After delivering his SONA to the usual clapping horde of sycophants in Congress, Duterte decided to go out and address the rallyists outside. 

As he spoke before the mainly leftist crowd that had gathered for the People’s SONA Protest in front of the Batasan Complex, he was met by a hostile crowd demanding for the changes he promised. Surrounded by a phalanx of Presidential Security Guards, he even dared the crowd to throw a grenade at him before leaving in a huff.

If not for his presence and the rain, his effigy would have been burned.

Rejection of leftist secretaries

The final nail on the coffin of the Duterte-Left alliance was the successive rejection by the Commission on Appointments of the NDFP-nominated members of the Cabinet.

DSWD Secretary Judy Taguiwalo was up against legislators still smarting from her order not to allow members of Congress to dip their hands into DSWD funds like it were still their pork barrel allocations.

DAR Secretary Rafael Mariano, meanwhile, was fending off opposition from the country’s biggest landords led by the Cojuangcos of Tarlac and Lorenzos of Davao.

Apparently, Duterte did not lift a finger to lobby for his appointees, thus feeding them to the raptors in the CA.

Taguiwalo’s and Mariano’s removal from the Cabinet, plus that of former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez, signals the end for any hope of meaningful reforms from inside the Duterte administration.

Today the dream is gone. The marriage is ended. – Rappler.com