Where Duterte is doing better than Aquino

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Ricardo Saludo

Ricardo Saludo

Last of 2 parts
AS recounted in the first part published Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte has been quick to address the runaway crime and massive underspending under his predecessor Benigno Aquino 3rd. That has given Duterte public approval ratings nearing or exceeding 80 percent in all major polls.

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After tripling under Aquino, overall crime incidence fell by about one-third within months of Duterte’s takeover. And from 13 percent of national budgets unspent in 2014-2015, leaving some ₱1 trillion unused when Aquino stepped down, nearly all allocations were utilized this year.

Now, let’s look at corruption and national security. On sleaze, Duterte avoided one Aquino trait that abetted graft: cronyism.

Aquino jailed perceived opponents, including his predecessor Gloria Arroyo over charges the United Nations called politically motivated. But Aquino defended appointees, starting with shooting buddy Rico Puno, accused of getting jueteng payoffs and mishandling the August 2010 Luneta hostage crisis.

This despite dubious contracts in train maintenance and upgrading, vehicle plates and driver’s licenses; drug trafficking and illegal furloughs in the national penitentiary; and police firearms overpricing, which Aquino himself uncovered but never punished. He even paid the bail for Liberal Party mates indicted for graft.

And when more than 2,000 uninspected and untaxed cargo containers went missing in 2011—the biggest spate of smuggling in the country ever—Aquino ordered no investigation, and the Palace even suspended a Customs deputy commissioner who blew the whistle after 600 boxes had vanished.

Result: contraband tripled to an unprecedented $26.6 billion in 2014, from $7.9 billion in 2009, based on International Monetary Fund data. The estimated undeclared or misdeclared value of imports topped ₱4 trillion under Aquino, with evaded value-added tax alone exceeding ₱700 billion.

Contrast all that with Duterte’s firing of two longtime supporters over reported irregularities, including a stalwart of his PDP-Laban party then handling police and local governments. And he has promised to resign if his children are proven corrupt. No wonder two-thirds of Filipinos approve of his anti-graft campaign, as surveyed by US pollster Pew Research Center.

For sure, like drugs, corruption will take forever to eradicate, as Duterte himself admits. But swift action on drug smuggling through customs and trafficking at New Bilibid Prison, in stark contrast to Aquino’s inaction, are reversing past ills.

The war on terror

On terrorism, some experts blame President Duterte and his security chiefs for not moving fast and strong enough against extremists. No matter that he instantly declared martial law over all Mindanao when told of the Marawi assault while visiting Moscow, even without such recommendation from the Department of National Defense or the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

What belies critics claiming Duterte, DND and AFP complacency are the months of offensives waged against Islamic State-linked extremists, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which broke away from the main Muslim insurgency, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, when the MILF shelved secession and began talks for autonomy in the 1990s.

Aquino too faced Muslim rebel attack: the siege of Zamboanga City by the Moro National Liberation Front, from which the MILF broke away after the MNLF accepted autonomy in a 1996 peace accord. The older Front felt excluded and disadvantaged by Aquino’s MILF negotiations.

Which leader fought terrorism more effectively? One can’t compare two different situations, but in one crucial respect, Duterte may have done better. The MILF is now mounting offensives against the BIFF with AFP support.

That’s the exact opposite of what happened in the January 2015 police commando raid to kill Malaysian bomb terrorist Marwan in a BIFF lair in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, central Mindanao. MILF and BIFF rebels wiped out 44 troopers of the elite Philippine National Police Special Action Force.

In the massacre—the worst in PNP history—the AFP did not fire artillery or send reinforcements to save the SAF 44, apparently for fear of scuttling the MILF accord, the concern cited by a senior general in command of units that could have responded. The Manila Times also reported that Aquino, worried over the peace pact, ordered the military to stand down.

Plainly, having the MILF battling terrorists with the AFP is far better than the insurgents joining extremists in decimating our troops. And if Filipinos were asked if they approved of Aquino’s counter-terrorism strategy, he would score far below Duterte’s 64 percent Pew rating.

Dealing with the world

The final comparison has to be foreign affairs: Aquino’s pro-American, anti-Chinese stance vs Duterte’s “independent” policy ratcheting down ties with the US, while leveling up with China and Russia.

With Aquino’s adversarial approach, there were Chinese encroachments on Philippine-claimed waters and islets. His Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement would escalate US military presence and give America access to Philippine bases. In response, Beijing built up military-capable facilities in the South China Sea.

President Duterte’s approach, on the other hand, has seen Filipino fishermen return to Panatag Shoal. The Chinese have largely ceased reclamation in the Spratlys. And Beijing has been quick to defuse tensions.

Indeed, Western experts concede that China, in practice, is complying with last year’s ruling on the Philippine case in The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration against Chinese maritime encroachments, even as Beijing formally rejects the PCA decision.

As for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Asian and China have agreed on the framework for the Code of Conduct on activities and issues in the South China Sea.

Lastly, the Philippines is set to receive much more foreign aid and investment, as China, Japan and the US vie for Duterte’s favor. As the economy surges, we can in time acquire the maritime surveillance aircraft, anti-ship missiles, and anti-aircraft systems urged by US defense experts to defend our territorial interests.

In the Pew survey, most Filipinos approve of President Duterte’s handling of relations with both China and America. And if surveyed whether we would like Aquino’s camp to replace Duterte’s at the nation’s helm, it would be no contest.

First Parts–> What Duterte is doing better than Aquino

(The first part was published on Tuesday, September 26.)

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