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Engaging Duterte, engaging ourselves

The new political spaces opened by President Duterte present opportunities for positive changes. If these spaces are maximized, we could, in fact, have safer streets and more secure homes, local development, peace in Mindanao, peace with the Left, regular rather than contractual work, a more sustainable environment and improved national defense.  

This is why the Duterte administration is perceived by many to be different (i.e., anti-elite, decisive) and to hold so much promise.  

Moreover, President Duterte has been presenting a persona that lends further credibility to his anti-elite agenda and the decisiveness of his government. Simple. No frills.No fuss. No niceties. A lot of cursing. 

But here's the rub.    

The promised changes come with a hefty prize: human lives.     

In the first week of Duterte's administration, more than 70 suspected drug users were killed and 5 generals were publicly named and shamed as drug lord protectors. In the same week, Duterte allies in the House of Representatives filed bills to restore the death penalty and to reduce the age of criminal liability from 15 to 9 years old.   

Thus, while the Duterte administration opened a number of new spaces, it is closing one vital space – the space for the protection of human rights. The anti-drugs drive comes with a clear message to the public: government will provide you with safety but you must allow government to kill those who are deemed threats to your safety.  

The anti-contractualization campaign comes with a clear bargain with trade unions: government will make sure that contractualization ends but trade unions must stop being militant. 

That, to me, sums up President Duterte's approach to governance and reveals the President's style of patronage. It is a new and distinct kind. It is still "patronage" because it entails a relationship between two unequal entities –  the powerful patron and the clients in need.

It is "new and distinct" (at least in the post-Marcos era) because the exchange between the patron (Duterte) and the client (citizens) is very specific and purposive: limitless power of the patron in exchange for the economic rights and safety of the clients. In the context of anti-criminality, limitless power means license to kill. In the context of anti-contractualization, it means the silence of unions. 

As it turns out, many citizens accept this exchange. There is no massive public outrage over the spate of summary executions done in the name of the anti-drug campaign, and this, in itself, is indicative of public acceptance (not to mention that Duterte's net trust rating is at 79%, according to a Social Weather Stations survey conducted from June 24-27, 2016).  

This absence of massive outrage may be a function of a number of things. First, the economic rights and safety of so many citizens have been compromised for too long that they will now bargain even with the devil just to attain them. Second, the common folk's understanding of human rights is limited and shallow – it does not extend to the fundamentality of human rights; it does not include the connection between economic rights and human rights.  

Third, the Makabayan group, the traditional flagbearer of human rights advocacy (since the Marcos era) has been very cautious on this issue, most likely because of its alliance with President Duterte and the promise of peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA-NDF. Fourth, the victims of the extrajudicial killings come from families that are too poor to voice out any resistance. 

Critical engagement

The appropriate attitude towards the Duterte government – or any government for that matter – should not be one of blind support or blanket opposition but critical engagement. As citizens, we should "support the beneficial" and "reject the harmful". Simultaneous cooperation and resistance is possible, maybe even advisable.    

It is not enough to be simply "pro" or "anti" Duterte. We have to be able to identify which priorities and strategies of the Duterte administration need to be supported, altered or rejected, and, publicly converse around these concerns. The mob-inspired, troll-like, self-righteous type of positioning and conversing will not cut it.  

We have to define our own bottomlines. In engaging Duterte, we also need to engage ourselves: should we embrace "order" or "development" or "peace" at the expense of human lives and individual and collective freedoms? Is this really a necessary, inescapable bargain? 

The pattern of our dominant collective political behavior is clear: our bottomlines and actions are based largely on exasperation. In 2010, majority voted for PNoy because they were exasperated with the GMA government. 

This year, majority voted for Duterte because they were exasperated with the PNoy government. Right now, majority have accepted Duterte's drastic measures out of exasperation. Can we not break this pattern and objectify instead what needs to be supported, altered and rejected  – despite our exasperation?   

It is quite obvious that the anti-elite agendas of President Duterte are worthy of support and the political spaces that he has opened must be maximized. It is also obvious that what needs to be rejected is the trade off that President Duterte is offering: government's license to kill in exchange for safety, and, public acquiescence in exchange for economic rights.

Moreover, it is plain to see that the main means by which government intends to keep its part of the bargain is through the empowerment (read: militarization) of the police.    

This much has to be made clear to the President: his agenda may be agreeable but his ways are unacceptable. President Duterte should also be convinced that discarding his militaristic ways will not necessarily lessen his effectiveness as a leader or diminish his power. We, ourselves, have to be convinced of this.  

If President Duterte sticks to his ways and the majority continues to lend him unconditional support, and, the dead bodies of poor people pile up, we will have a dilemma in our midst. Where will resistance come from? Who will resist?  

For sure, resistance will not come from the traditional political players. There is a clear absence of a mainstream political opposition, especially in the Lower House. In the Senate, the most that we will likely see/hear will be a few, if not subtle voices of resistance.

Duterte's legislative support is assured and his militaristic strategies, in fact, could be institutionalized through legislation. In such event, the only other institutional resort will be judicial oversight, but the judiciary can act only on actual complaints and therefore, most likely, will not be a driver of resistance.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), meanwhile, has been visibly performing its constitutional mandate by taking strong positions on and investigating complaints of human rights violations but it is in a bind. The CHR's mandate is to implement the state's obligation to protect the human rights of its citizens, but how exactly can it fulfill that mandate when the Head of State himself refuses to recognize said state obligation? 

As for the non-mainstream traditional opposition such as the Makabayan group/CPP-NPA-NDF, as mentioned earlier, it has been quite cautious on the issue of human rights abuses because of the peace negotiations and the inclusion of some of its key personalities in government. 

There are some signals, though, of resistance in the trade union front as evidenced, for example, by the KMU positioning vis-a-vis the Dutertes in the Davao City local government over the labor dispute in the Nakashin factory.

The rest of the Left and civil society, especially the women's groups, have also been vocal about their discontent but because of their fragmented character and because of the objective conditions, they have not been able to scale up this discontent to the level of popular dissent.   

Resistance will have to come "from below" then, not from the mainstream or the non-mainstream traditional opposition. But who exactly now constitutes "the below"? Who will mobilize them? Or are they self-mobilizing? Who will convince them that they need not accept President Duterte's bargain? Or can they arrive at that conclusion by themselves? How are they to be persuaded that human rights are about shared, not just individual freedoms, and therefore non-negotiable? Or do they already know that? 

I do not have the answers. All I know is that change solely "from above" will not work. I know because in the past few weeks alone, despite the rampant killings done by the Duterte government in the name of public safety, I do not feel safe. I also do not see that the public is safe. Do you? –

The author teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University