09 Jul 2016

[Photo by Keith Bacongco]

The Philippine National Elections recently concluded on the 9th of May. Five big names in the national political arena competed to be the country’s 16th president whose term would commence on 30 June 2016. The most controversial among the presidential candidates was the Mayor of Davao City, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.

Now that Duterte is the next president, what would it mean for the Philippines?

Although Duterte has a massive base of supporters, he also faces intense opposition. He is a lawyer and a politician who has been serving Davao City as mayor for seven terms (or for more than 22 years). He also governed the same city as vice-mayor and its region as Congressman. Zero tolerance for criminals is his ultimate policy and, for this, he earned the sobriquet, The Punisher.

In 2015, Numbeo regarded Davao as the safest and fourth most livable city in the Philippines and the fifth safest city in the world with a crime index of 18.18 and a safety index of 81.82. Also, the Philippine Department of Tourism consistently ranks Davao City as one of the top tourist destinations in the country. Davao’s various festivals speak of its natural and cultural bounty.

Besides having extremely low crime rate, Davao also ranks as the fifth richest city in the Philippines along with the country’s sprawling metropolis (Quezon City), financial capital (Makati City), education hub (Manila), and economic hub (Pasig City). The top 10 richest cities in the country are dominated by cities from the National Capital Region (NCR), with only Davao and Cebu coming from provincial regions – Mindanao and Visayas, respectively. People from neighboring cities tend to move to Davao City for better opportunities. Tourism and agriculture-based industries are the city’s growth drivers.

Duterte’s supporters believe that he can bring the same success to the national level. Opponents, however, highly doubt this given Duterte’s city-scale successes and the country’s sheer diversity.

Supporters believe that Duterte can eliminate crime and corruption, instill discipline with an iron hand. Crime and corruption, however, may only be symptoms and not the root of the problem. Millions of Filipinos are drowning in poverty from the lack of job opportunities. The Philippine Statistics Authority reported that in 2015, 26.3 percent of Filipinos lived in poverty, with an annual income of USD 230. The loopholes in the law, such as the contractualization of labor, favor the wealthy and oppress the poor. Duterte has made promises to address these issues, though rather drastic and not necessarily through bloodless measures, and the people only hope for the best. However, the reaction to this “iron hand” governance by a previously colonized country that has experienced Martial Law may not be easy, and insurgencies are likely to occur.

Everyone admires the low crime rate in Davao City, but human rights activists are questioning Duterte’s means of maintaining peace. Duterte admits his involvement in extrajudicial killings and punishments in Davao City. His opponents argue that should he become President, anyone accused of crimes will not have a fair chance in any judicial proceeding. Some opponents add that Duterte may only choose to pull the trigger on anyone but the most influential perpetrators. Supporters, on the other hand, seem willing to give up some of their principles in exchange for security – even if it means having to live in fear.

National security is Duterte’s top priority. The security forces of the country – the police and the military – will be further strengthened and empowered as he intends to work closely with them to ensure peace and security. People only hope these supposed protectors do not abuse the power given to them. Otherwise, it will be no different from the previous state of Martial Law in 1972. As part of his Mindanao Peace and Development Plan, he intends to deploy 3,000 more special forces troops to increase the capability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He believes this is necessary to eliminate armed rebellion that has plagued the southern part of the country. Duterte believes stabilizing Mindanao is necessary for economic growth and stability. Concerning protecting the national territory against China’s blockade, Duterte’s stance remains vague.

Although Duterte may have the best crime-fighting skills among the presidential candidates, he is not an economist, and this bothers the country’s investors. He failed to impress the businesspeople at a televised forum and apologized for his coyness on economics. Aware of this, he will aim to employ the country’s brightest economists. International investors specifically pointed out that they would like to see a continuity of the previous administration’s fiscal prudence and anti-corruption efforts. Still, Duterte remains elusive about his economic plans for the country.

Duterte also aims to promote federalism which will only work if the country’s local and regional government units and institutions are capable and vigorous enough to carry out policy experiments, and govern their constituencies. Unfortunately, the country has fragile institutions at present. National politics is still synonymous with corruption and nepotism.

Heavily criticized for his lack of tact and restraint in speaking, Duterte’s opponents feel that he will only sever the country’s foreign relations for his lack of diplomacy. The media picked up the horrible joke he made about a dead missionary; although supporters put up a defense of misinterpretation or loss in translation. He was probably the only presidential candidate who would curse on national television – an act that made him a genuine person to his supporters, but a destroyer of Filipino values and a bad influence on Filipino children to his opponents.

Duterte has promised a bloody presidency. He once cursed a religious leader. He made jokes about wives tolerating husbands’ infidelity as long as they do not get sexually transmitted diseases. Despite this, he still managed to top the polls and win the presidential elections. A conservative citizen may say that a mainly traditional and religious country like the Philippines is slowly losing its values. On the other hand, a radical citizen may say that an expression of support for a leader like Duterte is a manifestation of discontent toward the previous administrations.

Duterte’s rise to power may be regarded as the south’s rise to power as well; considering that political power has long been concentrated in the north, specifically in Metro Manila. Duterte is from Mindanao, which is a southern region with a seemingly lack of financial resources. The Philippine Commission on Audit reported in 2014 that the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao remained the poorest region in the country.

It is hard to predict what the next six years will look like for the Philippines now that Duterte has become President. His advisors and cabinet members will play a critical role in confronting the challenges that will come his way. The advent of Duterte Administration will create various uncertainties about the future of the Philippines. Notwithstanding this possibility, it is highly likely that he will dramatically reduce crime and corruption, making the country a safe place to live, work and invest in. However, his lack of expertise in economics may pose serious challenges despite potentially attaining top economists. The biggest challenge could be whether he can unite the nation that has been engulfed with chronic religious and ethnic conflicts, especially in Mindanao. There is hope that his iron fist may, if used properly, resolve the Philippines’ numerous problems and raise its standard of living. Yet, there are chances that the current situation may only aggravate if this iron fist is misused for the vested interests of certain groups as witnessed in the country’s history.

The writer of this article, Eileen Kae A. Relao is a Candidate of Master in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Currently, she is working as an intern/research assistant at the Institute of Water Policy in Singapore. She has earned her bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication from the University of the Philippines; and from the same university, she has a pending graduate degree in Master in International Studies.