AFTER seven eventful post-election weeks, it finally becomes official at noon today: Rodrigo Duterte, the former mayor of Davao City and possibly the least presidential figure the country could have picked to fill the role, will take his oath to become the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines. The inauguration ceremony has been refreshingly simplified from the painfully ostentatious coronation of his predecessor, but is already tinged with a bit of controversy because of the pointed exclusion of the new Vice President, former political cipher Leni Robredo, who will be having her own inauguration ceremony across town.
It is traditional and actually very reasonable to give the new President and his Administration the benefit of the doubt for a period of time, usually 100 days, and despite my misgivings about President Duterte—misgivings that have not at all been assuaged by his continued savage encouragement of widespread extrajudicial killings, no matter how socially undesirable the 70 or so drug offenders who have ended up on the wrong side of that equation since May 9 might have been—I think some accommodation is fair.
Duterte, unlike his insecure and clueless predecessor, does not seem to feel that he needs to convince everyone that he is in fact the President, for one thing, and has moved on to sharing actual goals for his term. And unlike his predecessor, he does not seem to believe the Office of the President automatically confers infallibility or omnibus expertise on the one who occupies it, having already stated in no uncertain terms that he understands what he does not understand, and will let his chosen experts take responsibility for those areas of governance.
But granting the benefit of the doubt during the so-called “honeymoon period” does not necessarily mean suspending critical thought and blindly presuming every decision made will have a positive result, or that potential problems should not be acknowledged. While we shouldn’t prejudge Duterte and his planned initiatives, expressing skepticism about them, where warranted, is not only helpful, but necessary, particularly given some of the controversy that has erupted in the wake of a couple of his appointments to key Cabinet posts.
The most contentious so far has been the appointment of Gina Lopez, a rabid anti-mining activist and until now the head of the ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation and chair of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission as head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). While there is something positive in the basic idea behind appointing an ardent environmentalist to head the government department responsible for maintaining the environment, serious questions have arisen as to whether Lopez is, besides giving every indication that she intends to end every form of mining in the Philippines and economic consequences be damned, actually competent to head up a ministerial-level agency. Her tenure at the PRRC, the closest thing to a regulatory position she has held, has been unremarkable at best, with even the Commission on Audit accusing her agency of wasting millions by bungling a project to build 10 material recycling facilities and only completing one.
The DENR post is critical, because it has a fundamental impact on the first-level economic resources of the country. Granted, there is much about the conduct of the mining industry that needs to be improved, but simply restricting it is not the answer, because without mining, aspirations for growing the second- and third-level parts of the economy, industry and the sectors that it supports, will be severely, perhaps fatally handicapped.
The governance of that other first-level part of the economy, agriculture, is also being viewed with growing concern because of the appointment of former North Cotabato governor Manny Piñol to the post of Agriculture Secretary. Unlike Lopez, Piñol’s qualifications—the man is a farmer himself—are not in question, but his grip on reality may be. His very first pronouncement, that he would implement a nationwide program of free irrigation, has caused grave concerns about unmanageable financial costs, costs that could very well hamper other agricultural programs. With the competitive implications for the agricultural sector—both threats and opportunities—coming from the deepening Asean integration, a large-scale programmatic failure could be disastrous.
Finally, there is some cause for alarm coming from conflicting statements from the two most highly regarded members of Duterte’s team, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Budget Secretary Ben Diokno. It is almost a given at this point that very early in Duterte’s term the matter of tax reform will be taken up by the government, but a bit of uncertainty has been introduced into the prospects of its being completed successfully because of conflicting statements on revenue substitution coming from Dominguez and Diokno. Dominguez rather stridently dismissed the idea of raising the value-added tax, deeming it as a regressive measure; Diokno, however, without specifically disagreeing with Dominguez has, nevertheless, said that an increase in the VAT to 14 or 15 percent would very likely have to be implemented to make up for lost tax revenue from other adjustments.
On a positive note, the mood of the nation, both among the business community and the general public, seems to be a great deal more enthusiastic for this new President than the last one, and that may go a long way toward encouraging some real progress. But potential pitfalls should not be ignored, nor the benefit of the doubt not be subjected to some limits. Acknowledging possible problems before they are manifested might prevent them from ever doing so, and save us all from another half-decade of disappointment.