First of two parts
In the past week or so, this writer was among family and friends expressing intense dislike, if not hatred for President Rodrigo Duterte. All were ordinary folk with no political affiliations, yet one in fuming against him.
The reasons are well-known: Duterte’s rough language and sexist talk toward women; his confusing policy statements; the thousands of killings in his anti-drug war; the foreign policy shift away from the United States; and lately, the burial of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, and the claimed plot to oust Vice-President Leni Robredo.
Let’s look closely at these reasons.
On his gutter talk and rough manners, one leisure club member remarked, “It’s like the squatters took over the government,” seeing in Duterte the assumed lack of breeding among the urban poor.
That comment says a lot about the unhappiness with Duterte’s uncouthness. It’s partly, if not largely elitist, widespread among those from exclusive schools and posh subdivisions, repelled by cussing and politically incorrect remarks.
By contrast, the masa cheer Duterte for talking and thinking like them. Even among poor people with strict morals and manners — and religiosity is common among the indigent — the President’s unpresidential ways are tolerated as part of being the tough protector and reformer the nation needs (more on this later).
Since the D and E income classes — the majority of the population — raise nil objections to Duterte’s language, it won’t lose color anytime soon, no matter how many times he jokes about in-flight divine admonitions against cussing.
So those who hate four-letter words should not only brace for 5 1/2 more years of them. After all, it’s never easy for a septuagenarian to change habits. And he won’t even try if those objecting are mostly the wealthy, well-connected and well-bred, not the hoi polloi, whom he means to protect from, well, the wealthy, well-connected and well-bred.
More crucially, people who cup their ears, switch channels, or turn the page every time they encounter presidential “gutterances” should keep listening and reading. Otherwise, they miss big and important stuff not just in between, but right inside the bad words. Like telling US President Barack Obama to “go to hell,” which signalled the foreign policy turnaround Duterte announced during his state visit to Beijing.
The messy art of reversing policy
That brings up Objection No. 2: presidential statements give confusing signals on government policies, positions, and plans. Indeed, Cabinet members often find themselves clarifying or even retracting their boss’s remarks amid consternation among media, foreign governments, and affected sectors.
Probably the most widely reported flip-flops involve Duterte’s orders to end military exercises with the US. Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay took it back the very next day. Weeks later, Duterte said he wanted American troops out in two years.
The Commander-in-Chief also mused about abrogating the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which would escalate rotations of American forces in the Philippines and let them use five bases.
Last month, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the EDCA and military exercises would continue, though the latter would be focused more on disaster response rather than war maneuvers.
Amid all this, local and foreign media, defense allies, and American businesses are unsettled, with the latter pondering how Duterte’s anti-US rants may affect their investments and commerce in the Philippines. It didn’t help that he told enterprises unhappy with his foreign policy shift to pack up and leave.
In the face of confusing pronouncements, what should concerned observers here and abroad do about all the things they hear from Duterte and his deputies?
Huh? We should just grin and bear every twist and turn of presidential and Cabinet talk?
Actually, that’s pretty much what outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry told his counterpart Yasay back in October. Kerry said America and the Philippines would “work through” the period of confusion.
Plainly, when policies are being drastically changed, if not reversed, there would be much uncertainty and flip-flops.
And President Duterte is recasting, ripping apart, and otherwise radically revising major policies, from the decades-old US alliance, relations with China and Russia, labor contractualization system, mining policy implementation, and, of course, law and drug enforcement. And we haven’t even started charter change.
Those sweeping changes cannot but be messy, both in pronouncement and practice. Compounding the tug-of-war between avowed goals and actual implementation are powerful forces opposing change, from Western allies keen to keep the Philippines in their fold and apart from adversaries, to adversely affected industries and crime syndicates, plus their friends in the government.
Not to mention the camp of former President Benigno Aquino 3rd. It’s unhappy seeing policies and practices that flourished under it being or due to be taken down, including his mother’s 1987 Constitution.
Result: President Duterte would mouth off about what he wants, and both his people and concerned sectors and entities react, leading to follow-up talk scrambling to smooth ruffled feathers.
Watch the walk, not the talk
Eventually, however, the administration comes up with doable policies and decisions, compromising somewhat but still moving toward Duterte’s desired directions.
Thus, military activities with Washington would no longer threaten or provoke China, and there would be arms purchases and defense cooperation with Beijing and Moscow. Mining firms are being pushed to clean up their act, and a plan is being crafted to wind down contractualization without huge losses in investment and jobs.
In sum, the government is working through the confusion toward new policies. And the smart money keeps its eye on what actually gets done or promulgated, not the soundbites hogging the morning and evening headlines, but rarely leading to actual state initiatives on the ground.
So next time President Duterte shocks with unprintable or upending soundbites, take a deep breath, say your piece, then wait and see what his regime actually does.
(The last part will run on Thursday.)