STREETWISE: The Duterte presidency – interesting & challenging times

by Carol Pagaduan-Araullo

In a manner of speaking, incoming president Rodrigo Duterte, like the famous durian fruit of Mindanao, is an acquired taste. Many Filipinos, like most Davaoeños, take to him despite his foul mouth, crumpled shirt and old-fashioned machismo. They swear by the man and rise to his defense on every occasion having known him as their no-nonsense, hardworking mayor who made their city safe and livable.

Those who are immediately turned off by the smell, look and taste of durian and decide that they can go through life without ever having to try one probably feel the same way about a politician like Duterte. Except he is no longer just a mayor of a city down south, he is now president by virtue of a phenomenal victory at the polls and will affect the nation’s life and future in the next six years (and conceivably for generations to come) whether we like it or not.

The Philippine Left, particularly the national democratic movement which includes such formations as BAYAN, Kilusang Mayo Uno, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, Gabriela and Anakbayan finds itself in unfamiliar territory. Being used to the role of radical opposition to the series of elite, undemocratic governments subservient to the US, the movement is now facing an enigma.

Duterte is an avowed Leftist president who commits to resuming peace talks with the revolutionary forces of the National Democratic Front (NDF); promises to release hundreds of political prisoners; appoints Leftists in his cabinet; takes pro-poor, pro-people positions; and whose initial foreign policy pronouncements indicate greater independence from external dictates. At the same time Duterte will be committed, under oath, to preserving much of the status quo as the incoming chief executive officer of the government of the Republic of the Philippines.

Many well-meaning friends and sympathizers of the Philippine Left are asking how its leaders and members plan to deal with Duterte. They are wondering whether the cabinet positions offered will mean the taming or silencing of the mass movement dedicated to arousing, organizing and mobilizing the people for fundamental socio-economic and political reforms.

They expect from the mass leaders of the Left strong reactions, even denuncitations, to statements by the incoming President, some of which appear to be policy statements while others, just off-the-cuff comments, compounded by his penchant for hyperbole, satire and plain old ribbing.

The valid issues that have been raised include burial for the Marcos remains in Libingan ng mga Bayani; the spectre of extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s war against crime; protection of journalists from being killed in the line of duty including those who may be tainted with corruption; and cabinet appointees with dubious or unsavory backgrounds or conflict-of-interest baggage or known proponents of neoliberal economics.

There too are those who are anti-Duterte for one reason or the other, or anti-Left, or both, who would want to undermine any alliance between Duterte and the Left. They fear the kind of “change” or reforms that can emerge from such friendly, cooperative relations. They include criminal syndicates, militarists, big business interests, land-owning elite, political dynasties and die-hard anti-communists.

The top guns of the outgoing Aquino III administration, the “kaklase, kamag-anak, kabarilan” (KKK) coterie and the various hangers-on who benefited from it are without a doubt just waiting for any misstep, hopefully a major blunder, that they can use to trigger Plan B (Duterte Out/Robredo In). After having tried to redbait Duterte, they now try to bait the Left into joining the lynch mob against Duterte especially in light of his late night or early morning rambling press conferences where he has said or done some pretty outlandish if not outrageous things.

Historically, the US government has been intimately involved in the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency program against the communist-led movement. The US has long instilled a rabid anti-communist orientation into the military and police forces by means of indoctrination and training programs it has provided to them. It has also shown hostility to the GPH-NDFP peace negotiations not least of which is by placing the CPP-NPA and Professor Jose Maria Sison, CPP founding chairman and Chief Political Consultant to the NDFP peace panel, on its “terrorist” list, in order to demonize and isolate the revolutionary movement politically as an adjunct to crushing it militarily.

But more and more, to the consternation of the Right and the surprise and delight of the Left, Duterte is beginning to reveal himself as a maverick politician, an outsider, if you will, from the Manila-centric, hoity-toity political and social milieu.

His claim to being a Leftist or left-of-center is substantiated by his openness towards the revolutionary movement led by the CPP-NPA-NDFP not just in words but in deeds, not just as Davao City mayor but as incoming president of the entire country.

Duterte’s campaign promises about how he will prioritize health and education using savings from cutting down on government graft and corruption, inefficiencies and wastage are slowly taking shape in pre-inauguration policy statements. For landless farmers: land reform and priority given to agriculture. For the urban poor: no relocation, no demolition. For workers: an end to contractualization and a return to a national minimum wage. For SSS members: a hike in retiree pensions. Earnings of the state-run gaming corporation, PAGCOR, to go to the public health and education sectors. For government employees, specifically teachers, police and soldiers: decent salaries to keep body and soul together.

Duterte has stated he is against the wanton destruction of the environment through large-scale mining. At first he offered the post of environment and natural resources secretary to a nominee of the CPP, perhaps in recognition of its conservationist and anti-large-scale mining stand, as well as its mass base among the many indigenous peoples living in mountainous areas. But he withdrew the offer saying that he will transitionally head the DENR and mobilize the armed forces to help him impose restrictions against big corporations and others engaged in land grabbing and overexploitation of the national patrimony.

Emerging bits and pieces of the new government’s foreign policy indicate greater independence and adherence to national interests. There will be no kowtowing to the US. There will be a firm but creative approach to dealing with territorial claims (such as in the West Philippine Sea and Sabah).

But the Left is keenly aware that Duterte is also a politician in the traditional mold. His cabinet choices so far are dominated still by conservative, if not reactionary, bureaucrats both civilian and military, many left-over from previous fascist, puppet regimes. Disturbingly, his economic compass has been left to the neoliberal mafia long entrenched in business and economic policy circles.

Thus the Philippine Left recognizes, welcomes and supports the progressive aspects of the incoming Duterte presidency yet vows to continue to take a principled, critical and even oppositional stand on policies and programs that go against the interests of the country and its people. Putting this into practice in the next six years of the Duterte administration will require steadfastness in principle, political astuteness, creativity and flexibility in tactics, skill in nuanced messaging, and the maturity and strength of its organized mass base.

The next six years promise to be interesting, exciting and challenging times.

Published in Business World
7 June 2016