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Decoding Duterte

President Duterte is a walking hot potato. Almost everything he says and does sparks controversy and conjures up a hailstorm of negative comments from critics who are often left with no recourse but to simply damn him—for being crass, ambiguous, evil or stupid. His spokespersons are busy with damage control. The media can’t seem to interpret him correctly. Even veteran political analysts seem hopelessly confused in their efforts to decipher his agenda. Headlines everywhere reflect mass bewilderment about Duterte, clashing on many points and instances. A battle of words and claims, between netizens from warring political camps, in fact, rages on, exacerbated by the random, nonsensical slurs of “trolls” on social media.

Duterte's hints on severing our military and economic ties with America, for instance, forced U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel to demand some clarification, saying Duterte’s controversial remarks only inflate a “real climate of uncertainty” and have sparked distress, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Even some of Duterte’s supporters had glaring question marks in their heads after his “Goodbye, my friend” pronouncements, as implications may be galactically greater, with Duterte extending a hand of peace with the communists rebels beforehand, and then suddenly declaring his preference in partnering with China and Russia instead. But then again, it was news well received by nationalists and anti-American movements.

With so many intelligent people perplexed by the president, it’s difficult to think of it as just an inability to understand his message. It’s not likely also to be a case of careless assumptions, nor imaginations going wild. So, understandably, there’s a lot out there who might wonder: Did we just elect a madman for president?

The Duterte Way

Duterte is not a hardliner communist deep inside, like many fear he is, for he himself said he believes communism to be an ideology that is already passé. And him being a lawyer should also discount the possibility that he is simply a blundering buffoon or a raving lunatic who miraculously rose to the top. Behind the outrageous speech and alarming decisions is actually a framework of solid rationale. The secret to understanding Duterte’s agenda, it seems, is in reading between the lines.

The move to “separate” from the U.S., for one, really isn’t just about two affiliated nations parting ways. What the president is doing is putting in effect the long-due societal changes he promised during his campaign, one of which is our disadvantageous situation as an American colony. He is, in fact, asserting our sovereignty with the move. And for us Filipinos, it might just turn out to be the best thing since sliced bread.

The Will To Change

It’s a mistake to think of the Philippines as a shining example of democracy in Southeast Asia, when the opposite is true. This country is, in fact, the most graphic illustration, not so much of democracy’s disintegration, but more of how it can be faked.

In 1992, David Timberman underlined what seems to be a persistent paradox about our country in his book “A Changeless Land: Continuity and Change in Philippine Politics”. Timberland explained that despite a change in the form of government, from authoritarian to democracy in 1986, Philippine politics was mired with persisting paradigms of corrupt governance, electoral fraud and poverty. This is by no means an inaccurate perception of a lone foreign observer, but a reality that spans many years past, and still holding true today.

It is no coincidence that the Philippines has had a series of corrupt presidencies, a voluminous history of plunder scams perpetrated by public institutions that have gone unresolved, wholesale injustice and gross ineptness in public service, all persisting at the same time. The key to understanding our real situation is in asking ourselves why we are made to believe we have a democracy that works, when it is in fact dysfunctional as hell.

The problem of this country is deep, wide and complex. It is convoluted with conspiracy, hypocrisy, greed and betrayal that’s buried under the tombstones of countless forgotten martyrs and obscured by the mists of untold history. But at the core of it all is our denial of the truth, a reality that’s been kept in the dark for so long…perhaps as long as our supposed independence as a nation.

The solution to the problem, apparently, would be a revolutionary leader, one who knows what the real problem is, has the desire to enlighten the Filipino people with the truth, wields the power of the masses, and possesses the will to change things for the better. Duterte, so far, has shown these hallmarks.

Signals of Salvation

With a surprising rush of praises, even coming from leaders at the odd corners of the world, President Duterte’s popularity has reached phenomenal heights…almost to the level of a messiah. A survey by Social Weather Stations (SWS) conducted September 2016 showed Duterte enjoying an excellent trust rating, with 83% of Filipinos having much trust in him, despite international criticisms that were flung his way about his bloody war on illegal drugs. Add to this the very positive responses from OFWs evidenced after he recently carried out ‘short visits’ to several Asian countries, and already it seems like more people, than ever before, look to Duterte for the Filipinos’ salvation.

The people don’t seem to mind his vulgarity, and instead love his frankness. As the case may be, no Philippine leader in the past can be remembered to have such openness as to speak of and shed light on the institutionalized corruption in government, the extensiveness of narco-politics, the need to dismantle the country’s oligarchic system, or the reality that we are a neo-colony of the United States. Someone, at last--among the dozens of leaders who could have before--is talking about how the oldest democracy in Southeast Asia is not really a democracy, but a nation that’s perpetually on the verge of becoming a failed state. And better yet, that someone isn’t just talking, but actually doing something about it…on a national scale.

Rather than speculating on what President Duterte means to do, maybe we should be acknowledging what he has already done. In just 100 days, Duterte was already able to make such groundbreaking changes in government and society, he makes previous presidents seem like lame ducks. “Change is coming” is the catchphrase uttered by Duterte’s supporters. But looking at what he’s achieved in just a short period, one would easily surmise that change is already here.


Despite a barrage of flak for the thousands of civilian deaths in its wake, Duterte’s war on drugs garnered the surrender of more than 800,000 drug pushers and users, who then were directed towards rehabilitation and productive living. The hypocrisy of corrupt government officials, police generals, and judges involved in narcopolitics has been exposed. Tax-evading oligarchs are quickly put in check, and online gambling, which had about 4,000 outlets during the Arroyo administration, and about 8,000 during Aquino’s, has been abated in a blink of an eye.

Freedom of Information, at least in the Executive branch, is finally in effect (after being stalled for 2 decades). There’s suddenly less red tape in the bureaucracy, as government employees are starting to treat the public more respectfully, expediting transactions with a smile. At airports, legit Balikbayanboxes are no longer mishandled, and luggages no longer need to be plastic-wrapped as the notorious “Tanim Bala” syndicate that Aquino government couldn’t stop simply vanished into thin air.

A bonanza of public service mandates were quickly made, including the launching of 911 emergency and 8888 public complaint hotlines, the removal of the processing fee on travel tax exemption, the commissioning of new buses from the airport to major hubs and nearby cities, and the extension of drivers’ license validity to 5 years. Social welfare and security have become more tangible as immediately ordered were the resubmission of the P2000-SSS Pension Bill, and a sack of rice was added to each cash grant of the Pantawid Pamilya Program (During the Aquino administration, hungry peasants clamoring for rice were shot by state forces.)

The needs of farmers are now facilitated—with the opening of the DAR gates (which were closed for 18 years), the acceleration of irrigation projects, the order for the long overdue distribution of Hacienda Luisita land parcels to farmers, and the distribution of agricultural equipments that were purchased by the previous government but were not distributed for some political reason. The cartel that’s cornered the fish pens in Laguna Lake, comprised of ex-military and local government personalities, have been ordered removed to allow small fisher folk a fair chance to use it for their livelihood.

The plight of workers has been heeded at last, with the end of contractualization, and the removal of the age limit requirements for job seekers. Overseas Filipino Workers were responded with the creation of a one-stop shop for OFWs in the POEA, and the immediate repatriation of stranded OFWs in Saudi Arabia.

Mining companies that conduct operations destructive to the environment and are a threat to people’s safety have been shutdown. And with the launch of Bantay Dagat, the Badjaos are now deputies of the sea.

Bilateral talks with China over the West Philippine Sea dispute are generally better. The peace talks between the communist rebels and Islamic separatist groups seem more progressive than ever. Philippine servicemen now serve the country with pride and higher self-esteem, with salary increases, a modern veteran’s hospital project, and the hastened system in claiming benefits for families of fallen men. Moreover, our delegates to the Olympics got increased allowances without having to fight for it.

After decades of deterioration, Baclaran, Divisoria, and other places that before looked like they were going down to the dogs, now look better and cleaner. Residences have more peace at night with the 10pm karaoke curfew. The employment rate is up, the crime rate is down. Meanwhile, more positive changes are foreseen…about six more years of them. Now imagine how the goodwill goes rolling exponentially if Duterte succeeds in his plan to shift our system of government to federalism, thereby negating what has been the stumbling block to progress of many of our provinces: the syndrome of Imperial Manila .

The Road to Transformation

Duterte isn’t just doing a slight repair, nor a major overhaul, but a complete destruction of traditional politics and existing government systems, and then a total rebuilding from the ground up. A solution of this magnitude is especially in the Philippine situation where there is a pressing need for a whole nation to not only innovate but make revolutionary transformations on the most basic level. And when such fundamental shifts are in the offing, it’s only normal to expect huge, sometimes inconceivable, changes in the status quo. It’s actually irrational to think we’ll simply cruise through it. The Duterte Way is not a straight path. It’s not a daang matuwid. There will be a lot of bumps, humps, potholes and sinkholes along the way. But at least it is in the right direction. He may have to roll, crawl, hop, skip, jump, and somersault to get through. And if we want to get there faster, we have to do it with him.

Of course, this is all dependent on the condition that Duterte is sincere in his proclamations of wanting to make the Philippines a better nation for Filipinos. If it so happens that he's just another clown out to trick us with another presidential term full of B.S., then all bets are off.

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