Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute
The phenomenal rise of the Davao strongman as the most powerful leader in the Philippines has disrupted the Philippine political and economic landscape in the past three years. A majority of Filipinos did express optimism in the last presidential election that President Duterte would be a disruptive leader who would initiate drastic yet effective solutions to achieve “real change.”
While the President’s unorthodox style of leadership and management of state affairs created an environment of political uncertainty and unpredictability, the political will to undertake bold reforms given his high popularity ratings offered a good opportunity to institute radical changes in national policies.
We have become familiar with his brutal approach toward human rights and the rule of law, his populist brand of politics, the “militarization” of government, preoccupation with federalism, expansionist fiscal management (“Dutertenomics”), and what many think is a defeatist approach in handling the West Philippine Sea issue.
Three years on, the lack of wide-ranging institutional reforms shows that the promise of radical change was far-fetched, especially on the issue of corruption in the bureaucracy. Further, the President’s inability to end the perennial drug problem in three to six months, as he had promised, is a serious stain on his record. To date, the drug scourge seems to have only worsened, as the President and the police have admitted several times. The calls by international human rights advocates for an independent investigation into the killings spawned by the “war on drugs” have been summarily rejected by the government.
Still, despite the many controversies it has had to battle in the past three years, the Duterte administration’s net satisfaction ratings in the last survey ranged from “good” to “excellent.” Its latest satisfactory rating of 81 percent, however, should not lull Malacañang into thinking that good perception is enough; ultimately, the President’s leadership and legacy will be primarily gauged through the actual impact of his governance on the lives of majority of Filipinos.
Under Duterte’s watch, the following landmark bills have been signed into law: free college tuition, free irrigation, free internet access in public places, tougher sanctions for hospitals demanding deposits, universal health care, expanded maternity leave, more accessible and affordable mental health services, and the institutionalization of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino program.
In line with the President’s populist stance, the Senate and House of Representatives worked to pass laws that aimed to alleviate the conditions of the poor and widen access to basic education, health and social services.
Despite these landmark laws, there are still unfulfilled promises that need to be reevaluated. The coconut farmers, for instance, anchored their hopes on Duterte’s campaign promise to return the more than P75-billion coconut levy fund to them. Initially, the President said he would do that within his first 100 days. Unfortunately, it took the Senate and the House of Representatives almost three years to pass the measure—and then the President vetoed the measure this year.
Meanwhile, the increase in the compensation of teachers and nonteaching personnel still hangs in the balance due to budgetary constraints and the possible distortion of the salary standardization policy of government.
The major pivot of the Philippines to China and the government’s “soft stance” on the West Philippine Sea issue have been widely criticized. Instead of fighting for the Philippines’ sovereign rights, which the Hague ruling had upheld, the President decided to set aside this landmark decision. The passive and “defeatist” policy on the West Philippine Sea was crafted to get more loans and grants from China—a trade-off that, three years on, still has to show worthwhile results.
In the next three years, the biggest challenge for the Duterte administration is reducing poverty especially in the rural areas, alongside raising agricultural productivity, the anemic progress of which has been a drag on economic performance. It also needs to control inflation, undertake more institutional reforms, dismantle existing monopolies and increase labor productivity. A full plate right into its closing days.
This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.