IN just two months and a few days, President Rodrigo Duterte would complete his first year in office. Before that, the one-year government-employment ban on those who ran and lost in the May 2016 elections will expire, and they may now join the government. It might do some good. After 10 months of muddling through, PDU30 needs to move on, to a higher moral ground and a higher level of administrative competence. Especially if Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano’s impeachment complaint against him is thrown out of the House of Representatives. There are some good things going for him, but basic problems remain, and internal dissensions have begun to surface.
The list is mixed. His brutal war on drugs has reached a deadend. No one is amused any longer by the foul and offensive language he uses on foreigners he has not even met. He has made enemies needlessly where he should have made friends. Very few have been able to bridge the trench between his brusque rhetoric and what is supposed to be a President’s normal official discourse. His ability to perform for the crowd is undimmed, but the previously uncritical response of his audiences has begun to thin out. But TIME magazine reports that, in a recent online survey, DU30 topped the list of 100 “most influential persons in the world.”
Beating the world’s most popular
TIME does not say whether “influential” means being an influence for good or bad. TIME normally picks a “Person of the Year” who has influenced world events for better or worse. Thus, from the time Charles Lindbergh made the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic on May 20 to 21, 1927 and became TIME’s first Man of the Year that year, we have seen Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Mao Zedong join Mother Teresa, St. John Paul II, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, the Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire in a public square to set off the Tunisian Arab Spring, and others, as Persons of the Year.
One thing that can be said for The Manila Times is that it did not need an online survey to make DU30 “Man of the Year” on February 11, 2017, on his eighth month in office. But in case anyone is wondering how DU30 could have outranked Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook; Bill Gates, the richest human being in the United States; Pope Francis, who is loved even by non- and anti-Catholics; and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom individuals of all sexes and ages uniformly find “cute,” there is no need to suggest manipulation or fraud—the simple fact is that DU30 has more dedicated supporters (and trolls) in the social media than any politician or celebrity in the world.
Out of the country’s 103 million population, 54 million are on Facebook, while only 1.8 million Chinese and 157 million Indians are on Facebook out of a population of 1.38 billion Chinese and 1.3 billion Indians, respectively. Out of the 54 million Filipinos on Facebook, it is anybody’s guess how many got involved in the TIME online poll. As the Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Socrates Villegas recently pointed out, these trolls are the ones who attack without compunction the character of Church leaders who criticize the extra-judicial killings in the war on drugs.
Cracks in the armor
In ten months, DU30 has become the most widely travelled Filipino President on record, boasting of huge loans and financial commitments obtained from China, Japan and the Middle East, but without pointing out that all this has unnecessarily increased the size of the country’s external debt and the built-in opportunity for graft. The combined smell of money and power now appears to have created serious quarrels inside the administration, beginning with officials tasked to make the critical decisions on the importation of Mekong Delta rice. One Cabinet undersecretary who represents Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., as chairman of the National Food Council, has been fired without a hearing because of these quarrels, but she could be the wrong victim, who has been fired for the wrong reason, and the administrator of the National Food Authority, who has so far been spared, could soon lose his job. Unconfirmed reports say DU30 has signed the appointment of the new NFA chief, to be released in May. More later.
Regardless of DU30’s initial “popularity,” which the usual paid propaganda polls have tried to fudge in his favor, there is little sign that the country is being governed and governed well. It seems to be running on auto-pilot, doing well in spite and without the intervention of government. Aside from the disturbing cracks in DU30’s inner circle, nothing indicates that domestic and foreign policy directions and initiatives have been clearly set, to the extent that all members of his Cabinet have the same understanding of these. Everyone takes the President’s unscripted pronouncements as policy, but none of these are backed up by any kind of prior or subsequent study, nor accompanied by implementing rules.
The educated mind suspects that DU30 is unwilling to educate the nation on his real take on government. He needs to be more forthcoming and transparent. His duty is to govern the nation, not to create sensational headlines to sell newspapers. He should be encouraged to see, without any illusions or blinders, where he has erred and where he has done right. The errors must be corrected and as much as possible eliminated, and the correct things made perfect and expanded. The on-the-job training is over, the real work begins. This may require a new beginning not only for the President but for all the parties. He may be too proud to ask for it, but this is what he needs. As a presidential critic, I am more than willing to give him that.
Catching up on the basics
These are some things DU30 may want to do immediately. First, he may want to review his own way of doing and saying things; and second, he may want to strengthen his Cabinet and make sure it works at optimum capacity as a Cabinet, and not as a choir or an echo chamber. Both are indispensable to his success as President. The first thing does not require “reinventing” himself, if there is nothing to reinvent at all. He simply has to learn the things he ought to have learned from kindergarten, as the author Robert Fulghum says (“All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten”).
He has to realize that he is no longer the tough city mayor of at Davao who liked to impress the rural folk by talking of physically exterminating all anti-social elements, using the word kill, kill, kill. The presidency has a certain discourse and a set of manners, which are not optional; he must exert every effort to learn them, even at this late stage. The electorate did not impose DU30 on the presidency, so that he could do with it whatever he pleased; they handed him the presidency so that he would honor it, and make himself worthy of it.
An instructive and inspiring example would be the story of England’s King George VI (the subject of a recent film, “The King’s Speech”). Upon his ascent to the throne, he was confronted with a stammer which prevented him from making a casual speech. He froze before the simplest text. To cure the impediment, the Queen hired Lionel Logue, an Australian actor and speech therapist, to help him overcome his defect. It took patience, hard work, and a beautiful friendship between the monarch and his therapist to bring to the court the pleasure of listening to the King finally speak.
DU30 does not have a stammer to cure; all he has is an apparent oversupply of unprovoked invectives, which is dangerous to our children’s, and our own manners and moral health. Instead of listening to Hitler’s speeches and trying to imitate his rage, he could study how distinguished heads of state, prime ministers, parliamentarians, and even preachers behave. In dealing with himself, he has to insist that civility is not weakness and the lack of manners or charity is never strength. Marcos, whom he reputedly admired, never raised his voice or used an invective on anyone in public.
The Cabinet as an option
He may want to take a closer look at his Cabinet. They are almost all from Mindanao and from San Beda Law College—as though that island and that law school had a monopoly of the nation’s talents, and that being from Mindanao or San Beda was the first requirement for an important appointment. This was a mistake, and the result has been called a lightweight Cabinet, even among DU30 supporters. DU30 must realize by now the gravity and magnitude of this mistake.
Yesterday, Malacañang issued Memorandum Circular No. 16, according to Rappler, requiring the various executive departments under the control of the President to first seek his permission and consent before negotiating and signing any agreement or treaty with any foreign government. This is absurdity on stilts, worse than anything we ever saw during B. S. Aquino 3rd’s “student council government.” I nearly fell off my seat upon reading it.
Why should it be necessary to send out any such circular, when it is the first basic principle and fact that no treaty or agreement with any foreign party may be negotiated and signed, except upon the authority of, and the “full powers” from, the President? Was this an offshoot of unverified reports that the National Food Authority administrator had entered into separate negotiations with Thai suppliers for a big rice import without the knowledge and authority of the National Food Council?
On Monday, Evasco was reported to have submitted a letter of resignation, apparently as a result of the controversy, which had earlier caused the firing of Cabinet Undersecretary Maia Chiara Halmen Valdez, his protege from Maribojoc, Bohol, who got caught in a bitter conflict with NFA administrator Jason Aquino on the issue of rice importation. The letter was reportedly submitted to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, but quickly “returned to sender” on DU30’s instruction, before he could read it.
It now appears that the tide has turned against Aquino, who is being implicated in an alleged effort to conclude a deal with Thai rice suppliers. Sources claim that following the courtesy call of the Thai trade exporters association on Aquino last March 31, an NFA special assistant approached the delegation to inquire if the NFA could recommend a private firm, Seabridge Transport Corporation, to handle the shipment. The delegation ignored the question. A week later, the same assistant reportedly appeared at the Thai embassy to follow up on his request on behalf of Seabridge and the NFA administrator. He was told the Thai government would be the one to choose the transport company, not any other.
Although DU30 has rejected Evasco’s resignation unread, the Cabinet secretary has provided a window for a Cabinet overhaul. He cannot afford to let go of Evasco, who is his most trusted in the Cabinet. But he could redefine his powers and functions, so that he could avoid overlaps in the organization. Aside from reviewing who should be doing what, a Cabinet revamp should allow DU30 to make one very important decision with respect to mining, which has created a wedge between the government and the mining sector. Gina Lopez, the environment secretary, has earned DU30’s support for her radical position against destructive mining. But since mining per se is not and has never been the problem, the Cabinet must now decide what type of mining should be allowed within the framework of Gina Lopez’s concerns, and under what conditions would it be acceptable.