Balancing EJKs with landmark social programs

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Marlen V. Ronquillo

A PRESIDENT in the mold of Mr. Aquino will never sign a draft law on free college tuition. While it is the second most inspiring investment a government can do – next to a PH version of universal health care – free college tuition runs counter to the budget-balancing obsession of Mr. Aquino. He vetoed a token Magna Carta for the Poor on the grounds that it was not in sync with his fiscal sensibilities. The Pagcor earnings, just a fraction of the earnings of the state gaming firm, can take care of the token funding of the Magna Carta. Still, he vetoed that token attempt of Congress to improve the lives of the underclass.

In a slap to Mr. Aquino, the Magna Carta for the Poor rose from the dead and was passed anew by Congress recently.

Now comes Mr. Duterte with a ready pen and his enthusiastic signing of the tuition-free college law. On top of that, he does not even know where Congress will source the money for the landmark law he signed. He probably let out a smile and said “ bahala na kayo diyan.”

But do not get the impression that what DU30 did was a mindless gesture which he did just for populist reasons. No, far from that.

You know what? There is a shrewd political calculation to the act of Mr. Duterte. He wants to show the world he is doing a balancing act. Killing people (many of the killings have been reckless) linked to drugs on the one hand and improving the social safety nets to levels still unheard of on the other. The EJKs that mar his war on drugs are being complemented by some of the grandest gestures on social amelioration on the scale of free college tuition.

He signed the law during the peak media coverage of the Parajinog killings. The low moments of the Parajinog raid were in direct contrast to the high moments generated by the signing of the landmark law on free college.

The free college will not be the end. This is a certainty. Congress will pass other major social safety net legislation which Mr. Duterte will willingly sign. The Magna Carta for the poor will be signed, not vetoed, by Mr. Duterte.

The tightrope walk, the balancing act of Mr. Duterte has one immediate impact – perplex the critics who have been hammering him on the human rights front. Then throw them off balance. Ok, his administration has been killing people. A lot of people. Some of the killings have been senseless and reckless. And the EJKs have received criticisms from the multilateral institutions and international human rights groups.

His admiration for strongmen and disdain for the effete leaders of the Western democracies have contributed to the international impression that Mr. Duterte is president/killer.

But then, Mr. Duterte can tout his landmark programs for social amelioration. And, historically, a strongman favoring strong social safety nets and grand programs for the marginal groups is an oxymoron. We are not talking here of Hugo Chavez but the traditional strongmen, from Mr. Pinochet to Mr. Trump.

From Mr. Pinochet to Mr. Trump the standard issue strongman do not believe in redistribution programs. Guided by conservative economist Friedrich von Hayek, Pinochet ran his dictatorship to supposedly save Chile from the worst impulses of a redistributionist leadership and to uphold the dominance of free and unfettered markets.

To Hayek, all of Pinochet’s crimes cannot make him more evil than the socialist Allende, who was bent on using the powers of the state to crush the oligarchy and the reckless free markets that served only the well-connected.

Mr. Trump, the 21st century strongman, wants to repeal and replace Obamacare because it burdens the rich who have to pay the premiums to raise the money to provide decent health care to the poor and the sick. While Obamacare does not come near the health care version of the Scandinavian countries – or that of its neighbor Canada – it is essentially a health care for the underclass, who Mr. Trump and the Republicans loathe. Mr. Trump wants to dismantle social safety nets and affirmative action and discriminate against people with non-white ethnicities.

Even the national rants of Mr. Trump on trade have been inspired by his oligarch-friends who want the old mercantilist ways for one and one thing only – an advantageous position for their businesses. It has nothing to do with keeping jobs in the US and protecting US interests from unfair foreign competition.

For a president with the full instincts of a strongman, Mr. Duterte is of a different category, an outlier. On social amelioration, he is for a strong, activist state such as free college and other major programs for the underclass.

The fact that Mr. Aquino was a total miser on social amelioration programs and had this disdain for anything that would benefit the underclass, places an exclamation point on the major social legislation signed by Mr. Duterte and his wont to endow the underclass whenever possible.

This is the main driver of Mr. Duterte’s high appreciation ratings from the socio-economic classes that matter most – the sea of wretched humanity in the urban slums and the blighted rural areas.

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