[ANALYSIS] Duterte the Defeatist

JC Punongbayan
[ANALYSIS] Duterte the Defeatist
It’s one thing for presidents – or any leader for that matter – to make mistakes. But it’s a different thing altogether for them to give up as a matter of habit.


More than halfway through his term, President Rodrigo Duterte remains extremely (if unnaturally) popular.

Latest numbers from the Social Weather Stations show Duterte enjoyed a 65 percentage point net satisfaction rating as of late September. This means 78% of Filipino adults were satisfied with his performance and only 13% were not.

But Duterte’s enduring popularity is baffling, considering his increasingly defeatist stance on some of the most pressing policy issues of the day.

From the country’s drug problem, last year’s spell of high inflation, Metro Manila’s monstrous traffic, and China’s encroachments, Duterte comes off not so much as a strongman – forceful and resolute – but as someone who has simply lost steam and given up.

You’ll be surprised how frequently Duterte has used the phrase “wala akong magawa” (I can’t do anything) or “wala tayong magawa” (we can’t do anything) in his speeches and other public appearances.

Drug problem: ‘I cannot control’

Duterte’s defeatism starts with his very own pet policy: the war on drugs.

Back in 2016 he rose to power on the singular promise he will stop the country’s drug menace in as little as 3 to 6 months.

Fast forward to 2019, Duterte has repeatedly admitted he’s nowhere near eradicating drugs.

As early as 2017 he already said, “Hindi makaya nga ng iba, tayo pa kaya? (Others couldn’t do it. How much more for us?) Iyong drugs na iyan, we can’t control it.”

Last year he said, “Drugs will not end at the end of my term. It might just be worsened.”

And this year, right before the midterm elections, he said, “Drugs, I cannot control, son of a bitch, even if I ordered the deaths of these idiots.”

It was also Duterte himself who – absent any empirical basis whatsoever – claimed the ranks of drug users in the country swelled from 3 to 4 million in 2016 to 7 to 8 million this year. 

The drug war’s glaring failure should surprise no one.

Countless studies worldwide have shown that any war on drugs is ineffective and bound to fail. In fact, it only tends to empower rather than weaken drug suppliers and cartels. (READ: War on drugs? Other countries focus on demand, not supply)

High inflation: ‘Hindi talaga kaya eh

Duterte also looked like a deer in the headlights in the face of last year’s bout with runaway inflation (or how fast prices are rising).

When inflation peaked at 6.7% in October last year, Duterte said, “I have assembled all of the talents available…low-key but brilliant minds…Kung sa mga utak na ‘yan hindi kaya, hindi talaga kaya eh. Wala, wala tayong magawa…(If those brilliant minds can’t handle it, we can’t do it. Nothing, we can do nothing about it.)”

Sure, presidents don’t have to be economists. But total ignorance of economics – coupled with lack of interest about it – could lead to policy paralysis.

Even as millions of Filipinos – especially the poorest of the poor – felt the sharp acceleration of prices last year, the Department of Finance contented itself with downplaying inflation’s impact, one press conference at a time.

It took then-House speaker Gloria Arroyo – an economist by training – to convene the economic managers and list down concrete steps to combat inflation. In all this, Duterte was nowhere to be found.

Luckily, inflation has since dropped to less than one percent, and the economic managers now take credit for their measures such as the Rice Tariffication Act, which has its own set of problems

In short, government was evidently not helpless – far from what Duterte would have us believe.

Monstrous traffic: ‘Let EDSA rot’

Where Metro Manila’s worsening traffic situation is concerned, Duterte seems to have thrown in the towel, too.

Early on, Duterte sought “emergency powers” from Congress to combat traffic. But critics were skeptical how exactly these emergency powers might help (if at all), and Congress has dilly-dallied on it. 

In exasperation, Duterte has given up on it entirely: “Ilang buwan na lang. Two years and so many months, hindi ko na ‘yan matatapos…Bakit ako maghingi ng emergency power? (There are but a few months left…I can’t finish that. Why should I still ask for emergency powers?)”

Earlier he said, “Let EDSA remain as it is for the next 20 years…‘Wag na lang. Wala na tayong magawa. (Don’t bother. We can’t do anything about it.)”

Proposed solutions to the traffic nightmare actually abound. On and off social media people have suggested alternative number coding schemes, more and better public transportation options like bus rapid transits and trains, and congestion pricing at major thoroughfares.

Yet rather than take these suggestions seriously, the Palace busied itself with publicity stunts and lexical debates about the definition of a “traffic crisis.” (READ: What Duterte doesn’t get about Metro Manila traffic)

Filipinos are craving for both immediate and long-term relief from their daily traffic woes. The last thing they need to hear is that the President seems neither willing nor able to do anything about it.

China’s encroachments: ‘Wala akong magawa

Finally, Duterte’s defeatism is perhaps nowhere as evident as in his China stance.

Before coming into office, Duterte promised he would invoke the arbitral tribunal’s historic ruling on the West Philippine Sea. Heck, Duterte even jested he would ride a jet ski to the Spratlys and plant a Philippine flag there.

But Duterte has not just glaringly failed to ride a jet ski, more importantly, his foreign policy stance toward China has also turned out to be disturbingly obsequious.

This year, for example, Duterte said, “When China claimed the entire ocean as theirs, eh wala akong magawa, wala tayong magawa eh ‘yan ang gusto niya. (I couldn’t do anything, we couldn’t do anything, it’s what China wants.)”

When the Chinese militia rammed and sank a Filipino fishing boat in June, Duterte told the fishermen blithely, “Well, I’m sorry. That’s how it is.” Duterte also simply echoed Beijing’s characterization of the attack as an “ordinary maritime traffic accident.”

Duterte supposedly mentioned the West Philippine Sea to Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last August. But Xi reportedly didn’t budge and merely “reiterated his government’s position of not recognizing the arbitral ruling.”

Many a legal and foreign policy expert have warned against an overly defeatist stance concerning China. They even laid down concrete steps by which Duterte can assert our sovereign rights. (READ: Carpio rebuts Duterte, offers at least 6 ways to enforce Hague ruling)

But there are none so deaf as those who will not listen.

We deserve no quitter

It’s one thing for presidents – or any leader for that matter – to make mistakes. But it’s a different thing altogether for them to give up as a matter of habit.

Elbert Hubbard once said, “There is no failure except in no longer trying. There is no defeat except from within, no really insurmountable barrier save our own inherent weakness of purpose.”

By this standard, Duterte is unmistakably failing the Filipino people. Yet we let him get away with it.

We Filipinos deserve more from our President. By 2022 let’s elect a new one who has enough brains and grit to tackle the biggest problems facing our society.

There’s no room for jaded quitters in the Palace. – Rappler.com

The author is a PhD candidate at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations. Follow JC on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ (usapangecon.com).

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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for Rappler.com. He is also co-founder of UsapangEcon.com and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.