Deconstructing Duterte’s Clamor for Radical Change

July 27, 2016

Dindo Manhit, President of Stratbase-Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies

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On Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte delivered a conversational yet comprehensive State of the National Address, or SONA. In it, President Duterte summed up his first priorities in legislation, in national projects, and in delivering public services, so as to realize his vision of a people-centered government during his six-year term. In over ninety minutes, Duterte emphasized his desire to intensify the nationwide anti-drug, anti-crime, and anti-corruption campaign; begin to build peace with the armed Communist movement and Moro separatists; and shift the country to a federal-parliamentary form of government. Impressively, 91% of the Filipino people trust that he will deliver (July 2-8 Pulse Asia survey).

We can examine Duterte’s policy thrusts and strategic interventions against six governance initiatives: strategic leadership, transparent and accountable government, responsive public services, strong rule of law and a stable policy environment, improving social inequality, and the defense of territorial integrity and maritime rights. These initiatives serve as a guide in determining how well Duterte has done in fulfilling his duty as the leader of the land and well as his promise of radical change—the powerful battle cry that led to his phenomenal rise to the presidency.

Strategic Leadership

While it drafts its medium-term strategy documents, the Duterte administration is providing an introspective form of strategic leadership that reflects his strong emphasis on law and order. The government’s campaign to combat social evils intensified upon Duterte’s assumption of office, soon after which he personally named five “narco-generals” and replaced the guards of the New Bilibid Prison with elite Special Action police forces.

In a July 14 report, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said that in the first two weeks of July, around 66,300 people voluntarily surrendered for drug offenses, 1,800 suspects were arrested, and 135 suspects were killed. At the same time, more than 43,000 houses were “visited” under Project Tokhang, with around PHP 146.3 million worth of illegal drugs seized. In the same period, several civil society groups raised their clamor for the respect for due process and fair hearings, and for Duterte to avert the growing number of extra-judicial killings.

President Duterte also turned his anti-crime sights on the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), vowing to employ the full force of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and strengthen coordination with Indonesia, Malaysia, and other bilateral partners to crush the ASG and other lawless elements.

To help build peace, President Duterte declared a unilateral ceasefire with the New People’s Army (NPA), effective immediately, in preparation for the resumption of peace talks. He also urged the Congress to pass a more inclusive, more constitutionally compliant form of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which shall serve as a template for his envisioned federal structure. Throughout the SONA, Duterte repeatedly emphasized his desire for a radical shift to a federal-parliamentary form of government that will decentralize power. He said he hopes for a federal system of government to be put in place four to five years into his term following a referendum.

Transparent and Accountable Government

Duterte vowed to provide concrete mechanisms to render the government more transparent and accountable. Just before the SONA, he signed an Executive Order providing Freedom of Information to Filipinos—fulfilling a campaign promise and especially admirable coming so early in his term as President. In the SONA, he urged Congress to turn the Executive Order into law.

To improve accountability, Duterte is set to implement an 8888 anti-corruption hotline for Filipinos to report the practices of wayward public officials. The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) has already issued a memorandum order for its use effective August 1. He also pushed for the relaxation of the Bank Secrecy Law aimed at improving tax collection and preventing tax evasion.

Duterte vowed to strictly implement environmental standards. With marching orders from the president, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) began embarking on a new pro-environment crusade, auditing all mining firms in the country, seeking for bigger revenue share for the government, and suspending those which fail to comply with safety standards as stipulated in the Mining Act.

Responsive Public Services

After tackling issues on security and accountability, Duterte set his sights on the country’s need to pursue industrialization and improve the quality of life of all citizens. To achieve these twin goals, he revealed a plan to improve existing national roads, bridges and railways and implement and develop new logistics networks and transit systems. To resolve traffic congestion in Metro Manila, he asked for emergency powers and proposed the revival of daily operations of the Pasig River Ferry Service System. All of these moves will facilitate freer and faster movement of goods and people across the archipelago.

In this regard, DBM said it will adopt a hybrid form of Public-Private Partnership, wherein the government will build hard public infrastructure non-stop while a private firm will perform maintenance. Duterte also earlier met with Chinese diplomats led by to draw financial support and technological capability for the proposed railway systems. To decongest Ninoy Aquino International Airport specifically, he proposed that a new airport be constructed in Sangley Point, Cavite, while other flights be moved to Clark International Airport, which will be to Metro Manila via railway. He also called for a National Broadband Plan to upgrade our cyber infrastructure.

As regards agriculture and aquaculture, Duterte promised to provide free irrigation for farmers and establish modern harvest and postharvest facilities to minimize losses. He tasked the Department of Agriculture (DA) with conducting nationwide soil analysis to optimize the production of rice and other crops. He also vowed to strictly enforce fisheries laws, particularly on illegal fishing and promote aquaculture along river banks and in backyards. With regard to energy, however, Duterte reiterated his stand that he will not honor the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change, believing that its restrictive provisions on carbon emissions will stifle the country’s ability to jumpstart industrialization.

Duterte also vowed to address the bottlenecks within the government bureaucracy reducing processing time in issuing business permits, clearances and licenses to the barest minimum, preferably within three days at the maximum.

Strong Rule of Law and Stable Policy Environment

Duterte assured that he will complement these objectives with sound macro-economic management. His administration will provide continuity of macroeconomic policies and honor the contracts made by the Aquino government. Duterte plans to achieve this through the appointment of pro-business technocrats who will provide a sense of balance to his appointment of some left-leaning leaders in the Cabinet, thereby helping translate high growth into more and better job creation and poverty reduction. Furthermore, Duterte stressed the need to attract more investments, particularly in sectors of manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism. One topic that was not tackled at length during SONA, however, was the implementation of no-contractualization policy although the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) earlier vowed to carry this out.

Preference for the Poor and Inclusive Growth

Duterte advocated for the expedient implementation of progressive policies, such as the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law. According to Duterte, this is aimed at empowering the Filipino families, especially the poor to have freedom of informed choice on their preferred number and spacing of children. He lobbied for Universal Health Care through PhilHealth which will equalize and broaden access to quality health services. Furthermore, he called for genuine tax reform which would entail lowering income and corporate taxes.

Defending Territorial Integrity and Maritime Rights

Duterte departs from Aquino by balancing between the US and China, and keeping a more moderate position on the West Philippine Sea dispute with Beijing. Despite the favourable Arbitral Tribunal ruling, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) earlier called for restraint and sobriety rather than increase in diplomatic pressure for China’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

Former President Fidel V. Ramos has already acceded to Duterte’s request to become the special envoy for the resumption of high-level talks. It remains to be seen, whether or not Duterte will use the ruling as the basis for future negotiations with China. There are hints that Duterte is likely to put the ruling in the backburner in exchange of greater “benefits”, i.e. increased Chinese financial and infrastructural aid.


In general, Duterte succeeded in electrifying the government bureaucracy in his first 100 days of office, thereby giving the Filipino populace a new ray of hope that the new administration is committed to genuine political, economic and social revolution. Although far from being perfect, Duterte managed to lay down the overall groundwork for the accomplishment of his three strategic objectives towards the end of his six-year term, namely: reestablishment of law and order, rendering of a more inclusive socio-economic growth and development, and restructuring of the form of government.

The fundamental challenge is for Duterte to sustain the growing momentum of his radical agenda by: translating his personal, patriotic vision into strong, dynamic and first-world state institutions that will outlive him; empowering a new breed of political, bureaucratic and business elite to carefully implement his pro-security and pro-developmental policies, plans and programs; maintaining support among the majority of the Filipino populace; and managing bilateral and multilateral relations with neighboring countries as well as regional powers.

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