SIX months after being swept into the presidency, an unorthodox and a tough-talker from Mindanao has shaken up Philippine politics and stirred a hornet’s nest by lashing out at established institutions.
President Rodrigo Duterte, 71, has waged a bloody war against illegal drugs, a controversial campaign that has single-handedly defined his early days in the presidency. His drug war has placed the Philippines at the center of the global campaign against illegal drugs, a menace that no country has ever succeeded in solving.
As of Dec. 23, over 6,187 alleged drug users and pushers have died—more than half of them victims of extrajudicial or vigilante-style killings. A latest poll by the independent Social Weather Stations (SWS) showed 85 percent of adult Filipinos are satisfied with his war on drugs, but 94 percent felt it’s important for police to arrest suspects alive, underscoring public worry over the growing body count.
But for the police, Duterte’s public threats to kill criminals, especially drug dealers, have helped reduce the crime rate considerably. In a statement, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar told The Manila Times that since Duterte’s day, he has “hit the ground running and started his work for the nation with no dull moment.”
When asked for the Palace’s assessment on the first six months of the Duterte presidency, Andanar said, “He launched an unprecedented anti-drug war that saw the surrender of more than 800,000 drug addicts. He also charted a new course in international relations with his pursuit of an independent foreign policy, which means moving strongly and swiftly toward regional economic rebalancing for closer integration in Asia.”
He added that the Philippines is forging closer ties with Asean or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. “As the President walked the extra mile for peace, the Chief Executive made the country’s economic growth the fastest among emerging Asian economies and lowered unemployment to its lowest level in more than a decade,” Andanar stressed.
But while the Philippines’ drug problem has been front and center in his priorities, the President also vowed to pursue programs that would alleviate the suffering of ordinary Filipinos.
Andanar said the Duterte administration unveiled a budget “to usher in the golden age of infrastructure and bring forth the promise of real change in the country.” He added, “To restore faith in government, he moved the bureaucracy to effectively implement programs that benefit the poorest. Basic services, formerly broken or unavailable, are now working,” including having better trains for mass transport.
“Free education, free hospitalization and medicine, and free irrigation are now within the grasp of the marginalized, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable,” Andanar revealed. “Much has been done in the first six months and much more will be done in the succeeding months and years. After all, the President’s heart is in the right place, and he has only the interests of the Filipino people and the nation in his mind first and foremost.”
The President makes no secret of his disdain for Western powers and international institutions that criticize his war on drugs. The US, the UN, and the EU are among Duterte’s frequent targets of his colorful insults and curses. In his speech earlier, Dutere told US President Barack Obama “to go to hell.”
While critical of the US, the Philippines’ longtime ally, Duterte has reached out to China and Russia. The choice of Beijing, however, may come off as strange: the Philippines, after all, has long been locked in a maritime dispute with China over territories in the South China Sea. It was also the Philippines that made the historic move of taking the Asian superpower to international arbitral court—and winning that case.
While Duterte has frequently espoused an “independent foreign policy” as the way to go for the Philippines, he also professes his own dependence on his new best buddies.
Known for spitting expletives and curses left and right, Duterte promised he would behave when he became President. It’s a promise he has broken at least twice. But Duterte makes no excuses for his cursing, claiming that his mouth was “rural” and that this was simply how he behaved. He lambasted criticisms over his “un-statesmanlike” demeanor, saying he does not intend to be a statesman.
Also not one to follow protocol, the President skipped his own proclamation, and missed events at international functions supposedly due to a jetlag. In one summit, he said he purposely skipped the event as a “matter of principle” because he disliked the Americans.
Longtime diplomats have asserted that the Philippines’ Chief Executive should not use being sick as convenient excuses for missing important international functions.
Duterte’s effort to resume peace talks with communist insurgents, who are waging one of Asia’s longest rebellions, has led to ceasefire declarations by both sides. With a ceasefire accord forged with the largest Muslim rebel group during the term of his predecessor, the easing of violence involving the communist insurgents has freed up thousands of troops who were redeployed to execute the President’s order to destroy the brutal Abu Sayyaf group, notorious for kidnapping and beheading Western tourists.
Duterte, however, walks a tightrope in handing concessions to the communists, including the release of long-detained insurgent leaders, without unsettling a military that’s in the front line of a bloody conflict.
The President has made whirlwind visits to more than 20 military and police camps, to explain his counterinsurgency strategy, raffle off pistols, and update them on a pledge to double their salaries and improve medical care for combat troops.
In his speeches at military and police camps, Duterte vowed to increase the pay of uniformed personnel incrementally, along with the purchase of additional equipment. “I assure you, I will give you everything you need to carry out your mandate,” the President has said.
Duterte has asked Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to make his promise a reality.
In September, Diokno said they would be able to do so “through a combination of allowances and increase pay.” On Sept. 26, Duterte signed Executive Order No. 3, increasing the combat incentive pay of the Armed Forces and Philippine National Police personnel.
End red tape in govt
On fighting corruption, Duterte’s record is at its best so far. In his first SONA or State of the Nation Address, Duterte ordered government agencies to reduce processing time for requests and permits to the barest minimum. He also instructed his Cabinet to process permits within 30 days “or we part ways.”
At least three departments have responded by issuing a joint memorandum circular, requiring LGUs to cut the processing time for business registration to two days for new applicants, and just a day for renewal—both requiring a maximum of three steps.
Land titling also got faster, with the launch of a system by the environment department’s Land Management, which cuts down the approval of land surveys to five working days, instead of at least six months.
In addition, the 911 and 8888 hotlines were activated in August to receive emergency calls and citizen complaints, respectively.
In July, Duterte signed the executive order on Freedom of Information (FOI), which mandates the full public disclosure of offices under the executive branch. Just a day after the May 9 polls, Duterte vowed to push for the FOI, with a plan to issue an EO if Congress was not keen on passing the bill.
The EO covers “all government offices under the executive branch, including but not limited to the national government and all its offices, departments, bureaus, offices, and instrumentalities including government-owned and -controlled corporations and state universities and colleges. The LGUs are also encouraged to observe this order.
But FOI advocates say a law still needs to be passed, since the EO only covers the executive branch. The draft for the manual of FOI also lists 166 exceptions, ranging from information related to national security to criminal investigations.