• After one year of Duterte, now the hard part

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    Ricardo Saludo

    SOME of the commentary on President Rodrigo Duterte’s first year in office border on the absurd. One opposition congressman was headlined saying nothing was accomplished since noontime on June 30, 2016.

    So, the nearly four out of every five Filipinos expressing trust, approval and satisfaction with Duterte, according to Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations surveys, must be imagining things about the country.

    Another opposition stalwart claims Filipinos are in denial about human rights violations. One wonders if it is she who can’t accept that the President’s bloody campaign against drugs and crime, while disturbing to her countrymen, has in fact safeguarded their lives, well-being and rights far better than the past regime, which saw crime triple to more than a million incidents a year in 2013.

    And her Senate colleague warns of uncertainty ahead under Duterte. Well, that would be news to the World Bank, which expects economic growth to continue this year at an Asia-pacing 6.8 percent, and even more in 2018.

    Also expecting more of the same are global credit rating agencies Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch, which maintained investment-grade marks for the Philippines, with stable outlook, meaning no ups and downs expected.

    Nor are Filipinos wondering how the Commander in Chief and the security forces will deal with threats against law and order, and peace and harmony. We’ve seen it in the anti-drug war. It’s not pretty, but it keeps the people safe, as the 30 percent drop in overall crime and the retaking of Marawi vividly demonstrate.

    For sure, it’s not a sure thing that five trenches of tax reforms will actually pass Congress, or the P8 trillion in infrastructure can all or even mostly be built. Peace talks are also iffy, especially with the double-talking communists, and federalism faces years of dizzying gyrations in Charter amendments, plebiscite campaigning and voting, and inevitably disruptive implementation.

    But then, that’s change, unsettling but eventually settling on something new and hopefully better.

    In sum, while much still needs to be done by the Duterte administration across many fronts, from sweeping tax reform and massive infrastructure projects, to fighting lawlessness and terrorism and forging lasting peace with rebel groups, plus slashing graft and red tape, much has already been done in just 365 days, and there are five more years ahead to advance the change agenda.

    From shock and awe …
    So, will things keep going awesomely, as former President Gloria Arroyo described Duterte’s first year of mega-moves, from his independent foreign policy dancing with all big powers, and his war on drugs and crime recording many times what the past regime has done, and now, taking on global terrorism as no East Asian country has done?

    Actually, Filipinos will now have to grapple with the hard part of President Duterte’s governance, security, and development agenda.

    In the war on terror, for starters, the inch-by-inch campaign to retake Marawi from Islamic State-driven jihadists, with their bombs, snipers, and arms stockpile, is shifting to the utterly unpredictable, undefinable, and uncontainable campaign of tracking down faceless, nameless bombers, killers, and kidnappers from among the mass of law-abiding citizens.

    Just like the perpetrators of the New York, Paris, London, Manchester and other Western terror attacks, the threats are hidden in plain sight until they detonate improvised explosive devices, machine-gun innocents at a school soccer match, drive a van into a crowd, or fly jetliners into skyscrapers.

    Turning to drugs, after the shock and awe of drug suspects killed by the thousands, the narco-syndicates may be regrouping and getting back in business, possibly spurred by the still hugely lucrative drug trade, with hardly any drug lords taken down despite the decimation of pushers and users.

    The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has rolled off impressive numbers, especially when compared with the dismal anti-narcotics performance in recent years. The P82 billion in dope seized, 1.3 million surrendered users and pushers, nearly 87,000 arrests, and 152 drug dens closed are just some of the unprecedented statistics on the war on narcotics.

    But if rehabilitation facilities and activities cannot wean the millions of users off the habit fast enough, the continued narco-demand will keep fueling the estimated P120-billion illicit trade, and that will lure the global syndicates, and grease the palms of police, prosecutors, judges, local politicians, and other enforcers to look away.

    … to slog and haul
    That brings us to corruption. President Duterte has reversed his predecessor’s unfailing defense of close associates, allies, and appointees, firing even Cabinet members and top agency heads, including longtime allies, for even a whiff of impropriety.

    That has done much to avoid the massive anomalies we saw in the Aquino-era commuter train, motor licenses and plates contracts, plus the tripling of smuggling to over $25 billion a year. And if the head honchos are forced to keep clean, the underlings can’t wallow in mud.

    Yet even the biggest Duterte fan knows that the fight against sleaze isn’t even one-tenth the way through. After all, the chief still gets nasty whiffs of alleged sleaze, as he did in Clark. That may yet prove to be a false alarm, but the truth remains that anomalies, kickbacks, bribes, and the like are still going on big.

    Red tape, too. The Philippine Economic Zone Authority warns of big investments going sour if dozens of ecozone applications keep gathering dust in Malacañang. And if that can happen under Duterte’s nose, imagine how much longer the crimson ribbons are elsewhere in the bureaucracy.

    As for the much-anticipated “golden age” of infrastructure, the implementing agencies must admit that they have never rolled out roads, rail, airports, and other projects at anywhere near the unprecedented pace envisioned now. The President is right to get Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco cracking the whip on mega-projects. But the agencies must still slog and haul to “Build, Build, Build”.

    So, let’s have a big cheer for Duterte’s first year. The work is about to get much tougher.

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