Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute
In 2016, we witnessed power shifts around the world with the rise of populist, nativist, or nationalist politics on a global scale. Rebalancing themselves between change and continuity, the demands for radical social change have gotten more pronounced due to rising inequality amidst wealth, economic growth, and disruptive social forces. In 2017, we welcomed a new world order or disorder: where societies continue to face a state of political uncertainty, unpredictability and international factors beyond the control of national governments and economies. In 2018, more uncertainties have unfolded that characterize an ever-changing political dynamics and political economy of societies. In this post-factual world, we are simply caught in a tug-of-war between change and continuity.
The Philippine landscape is not isolated or alien from these political and economic conditions. Time and again, the emergence of strong-willed leaders has historically wooed and rallied political support from the people in unprecedented scales. Surpassing the electoral votes garnered in 2016 and the performance ratings by past presidents after two years in office, President Rodrigo R. Duterte faces bigger challenges in managing the affairs of the country. Consequently, he finds himself in much tighter and expansive situations than simply being a mayor of Davao city.
Two years into his presidency, Mr. Duterte’s national policy has been anchored on three elements, namely, re-establishing the rule of law, Dutertenomics, and restructuring the form of government. Re-establishing the rule of law consisted of suppressing crime, illegal drugs, and corruption; strictly implementing the rule of law; and ending insurgencies and combating terrorism.
Dutertenomics (or the promotion of inclusive socioeconomic growth and development) comprised of expansionary fiscal policy to fuel investments on public infrastructure and social services, massive infrastructure investments as its centerpiece (from 5.2% in 2017 to 7.4% of GDP in 2022), rising social services spending (from 8.5% in 2017 to 9.2% of GDP in 2022), tax reform to finance investments in human and physical capital, and the focus on investment and industry as major drivers of GDP growth. Meanwhile, the adoption of a federal hybrid system is at the centerpiece of restructuring the form of government with the goal of making it more functional.
With the promise of radical change and adherence to the rule of law, Mr. Duterte is a leader who wants to outrun the “past” and break from its traditional practices. To make the difference, he has initiated actions and policies to disjoin from the traditional practices and has continued to attract popularity by appealing to the nationalistic and sectoral sentiments of the population. However, the problems that he wants to confront head on are historical problems embedded in a whole gamut of societal concerns. For instance, the problems of rebellion and illegal drugs are national (and international) concerns and cannot be resolved through simplistic and militaristic methods. After successfully combating terrorism in Marawi City, the presidency is now endeavoring to achieve much-stalled peace talks with the Communist rebels.
What makes Mr. Duterte an easy target of political scrutiny is his overarching tendency of not displaying appropriate public relations and diplomacy. As a president, a national leader should not plainly approach political dissent and opposition like a mayor bereft of political astuteness and statesmanship. A mayor openly and dauntlessly speaks about town or city issues, unwary of whatever the other local leaders in surrounding towns and cities would say. In turn, a president speaks to the public with all diplomacy and decency and takes into consideration the impact of the statements made. Thus far, what we have then is a parochially adventurist president undaunted by the local, national, and international repercussions of his actions and pronouncements.
Aside from this leadership style, another contributing factor is the web of social relations that he might be challenging, restructuring or reinforcing. Unlike other presidencies that have been indebted to the national oligarchy, Mr. Duterte efforts to exercise political independence from them are fragile.
In an international context, to exercise independence from foreign powers should be done with utmost diplomacy. The blunt, hostile, and arrogant withdrawal from an international judiciary institution does not only promote a politically myopic perspective but undermines years and decades of democratic struggle and achievements. This is why the withdrawal or the threat to withdraw from the International Criminal Court is a big blunder. International politics dictates upon the culture of unending negotiation and bargaining and détente.
However, what could we call the co-ownership agreement of the West Philippine Sea between the Philippines and China? While co-management is a very diplomatic and astute way of addressing the problem, to “share” what is originally ours is simply an abandonment of our sovereignty. If Mr. Duterte could stand up against western international institutions and foreign powers, succumbing to another foreign power clearly undermines the anti-mendicancy principle he has pronounced. In short, the administration has simply manifested a radical turnaround in its foreign policy.
Without establishing the grounds for economic democracy, political democracy is fleeting. It is in this crux of political economy where a national leader can initiate and implement the much-needed change to break from the web of social relations that have dominated Philippine politics.
Consequently, initiatives in battling corruption and advancing political reforms will tend to be impeded by either piecemeal or abrupt actions. For example, the sacking of public officials due to their lifestyle, foreign trips or hidden wealth is not accompanied by follow-up investigations to arrest the many other corrupt officials from top to bottom. Another remarkable initiative is the destruction of high end imported cars. While it created headlines and demonstrated the resolve of the administration to combat smuggling, again, the absence of subsequent inquires and investigation merely relegates such action to a show-off.
As for the concern that TRAIN promotes inflationary effects, the bottom line for the ordinary Filipinos is the cost of their everyday existence. Although in its very early stages of implementation, the mid- and long-term effects of this tax measure would indeed be revealed and experienced. Initiated by the current administration, the railroading of this measure for speedy promulgation has become suspect to many. Currently, the decision as to whether or not to suspend TRAIN amidst increasing inflation is left to Congress.
In the case of federalism, its railroading insinuates a significant degree of the presence of a hidden agenda. Be it in terms of power retention and extension or the preservation of patron-client politics, the current meticulous politicking within the House of Representatives is remarkable. Moreover, to require federalism as an ideal to be accepted as a PDP senatorial candidate casts more doubt on the true nature of the federalist agenda.
Lest we forget, the electoral platform and national program of Mr. Duterte animated by his leadership style has reaped favorable performance ratings from the public. Overall, he enjoys a much better level of public perception compared to the last five presidencies. Although contingent, the trend of his performance and the public trust ratings provided by third party institutions projects a positive trajectory.
The performance ratings of Duterte in the last quarter of 2017 rebounded at +71% satisfactory rating with a +58% net satisfactory rating. The net rating posted a 10-point increase compared to the third quarter of the same year. Similarly, the Pulse Asia survey of in the month of December gave an 80% approval and 82% trust ratings for the top official. The approval ratings did not change while the trust ratings posted an increase of 2 percentage points. This relatively remarkable rebound coincided with the phenomenon where Filipinos expressed widespread hope for the New Year. The SWS survey of 18-16 December 2017 registered an all time high record where 96% of Filipinos are “entering 2018 with hope rather than with fear.” This phenomenon is not unrelated to the changing political environment that the new presidency has brought about.
And after bouncing back by 5 percentage points, the satisfaction rating of PRRD slid by a negligible 1 percentage point, from +71% in the last quarter of 2017 to +70% for the first quarter of 2018. Accordingly, his net satisfaction rating also slid by 2 percentage points, from +58% to +56% in the same periods mentioned.
In essence, whether Mr. Duterte is another “strongman” in the making and capable of demonstrating his political will to achieve radical social change, the democratic adage that institutions matter more should not be overlooked. As leaders come and go, institutions are here to stay.
Hence, the restructuring of the form of government to make it more functional goes beyond the superficial form or system it assumes. Rather, it digs into the deeper condition of a political institution as the breeding ground for democratic values and aspirations.
This article was originally published in BusinessWorld’s Anniversary Report, “The Changing Game”.