Why Duterte’s recycled rhetoric is a winning strategy

Paco A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute

Many were disappointed by President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent State of the Nation Address (SONA). Many had hoped that the president would use his sixth and final SONA, which lasted almost three hours, as an opportunity to go into detail on his government’s plans to address pressing issues such as the COVID-19 Delta variant or our poorly performing economy.

But, instead, the president fell back on tried and tested rhetoric on the war on drugs, his “independent foreign policy” and the “tangible results” of certain infrastructure projects.

Talking about the president’s focus on the drug war during a recent post-SONA virtual town hall discussion hosted by the Stratbase ADR Institute, former Ombudsman Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales pointed out that, “He (President Duterte) said he was going to curtail the drug problem in six months. It’s been more than five years, but today the drug problem has not been controlled.”

“And In fact, I think it’s getting worse. Every day, we almost get daily accounts of drugs being imported to the country and probably coming from China,” Carpio-Morales said.

The Executive Director of the Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, and Democracy, Zy-Za Suzara also shared her observations on the administration’s supposed infrastructure wins, saying, “although hundreds of billions of Pesos were allocated for infrastructure development, Build, Build, Build includes large chunks of patronage-driven projects within the public works budget.”

Speaking on the SONA’s lack of focus on the country’s ongoing public health crisis, Stratbase ADRi President Prof. Dindo Manhit also said, “We need to mitigate the contingent and enduring consequences of this health crisis. The president should have given the people a reality check and a clear direction for economic recovery in his final year in office, which were not evident in his final State of the Nation Address.”

Personally, I would have also wanted to hear about President Duterte’s technology-related pandemic response plans. After all, the use of technology and the internet has played a critical role in Filipinos’ continued day-to-day functioning, and an e-commerce led economic recovery.

The country’s internet speeds have doubled in the last year, on the back of long-awaited reforms to the permitting process and continued investments from private telecommunications firms. However, bridging the digital divide by connecting more Filipinos to the internet is also crucial. In line with this, Duterte government could have thrown its support behind the Department of ICT’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) to bring the internet to the countryside.

Furthermore, policies that would have supported educational institutions and promoted continuous upskilling and an expanded focus on STEM education were also sorely missed. Digital readiness, after all, is more than just about speed. It’s about ensuring people and organizations have the skills to keep up with the evolving market.

While many felt Duterte’s SONA, with its recycled rhetoric, lacked the meat one would expect from a president five years into his term, we must also contend with the possibility that we—who tuned-in for the entirety of his three-hour Address—were not the only audience Duterte was playing to.

For instance, during the Stratbase ADR Institute event, former International Criminal Court Judge Raul Pangalangan pointed out that Duterte’s call during for Congress to pass legislation to provide police and military free legal aid was an “astute move, because it puts our vaunted human rights lawyers in a quandary.”

The pronouncement drew flak from Duterte’s human rights critics who were concerned that the free legal aid would be used in connection with the anti-drug campaign. At the same time, however, the move also forces these same critics to tread lightly, at the risk of contradicting themselves. After all, legal aid and due process are what they, too, demand for the victims they defend.

In addition to his critics, Duterte’s SONA was, without a doubt, also directed at his supporter. And the successful delivery of his message to his base is reflected in his supporters’ online groups.

In these online spaces, the dominant narrative from the SONA is not the president’s unfulfilled promises but rather his accomplishments and his enduring legacy. There are recycled images of infrastructure projects he supposedly initiated and oft reused messages of support for his anti-corruption initiatives, anti-insurgency efforts, and the war on drugs.

There are also constant attacks on the political opposition, arguing that the Philippines would be in even worse shape if this health and economic crisis happened under another’s watch. Not only that but there is also a push for the “continuity” of these accomplishments beyond 2022.

These are the same messages that he’s repeated throughout his term and have, in turn, kept his approval ratings up. Difficult to believe for some, but this has been a winning strategy for the president. No wonder his last SONA only doubles down on this same rhetoric.

In his remarks during the event, Prof. Manhit said that “I would say that since 2016 we have suffered a pandemic of disinformation. Hopefully, collectively as a society, independent institutions, the media, people in social media, should realize that it is time for us to look for these types of candidates, not based on political narratives or spins.”

Yet, despite clashing messages, spins and echo chambers, there is reason to remain hopeful.

As Judge Pangalangan pointed out, “We’ve got the biggest crisis of all, the pandemic which threatens our health and our economy, but it is also an opportunity for well-meaning Filipinos to forge a solidarity unknown in ordinary time and possibly even if fleetingly bring forth the fictive nation that cuts across the lines of social class that divide us today.”

“Monday this week was the turn of the president to declare what he considered the State of the Nation. Today and the days following is the turn of the Filipino Nation to speak its many voices, and to say what dreams and hopes that began in 2016 remain alive and kicking in 2021,” Pangalangan said.

This article was originally published in philstar.com. Image Source: PCOO/Presidential Photo.

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