Thursday, May 11, 2017

[Second Opinion] Make Duterte great again

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Contrary to the creative imagination of fake news websites, Nasa never said Rodrigo Duterte is “the best president in the solar system.” I wasn’t informed of any survey undertaken to reach that conclusion, and, I suspect, neither were the Martians.

But who wouldn’t wish for a Philippine president to gain such a distinction? Even when the competition has weakened in the age of Donald Trump, it will still be a great honor that not even the medal-loving Ferdinand Marcos ever received.

Some, of course, would say that President Duterte is the great leader we’ve been waiting for, while others would argue, with as much passion, that he was never great to begin with. (The idea of “making Duterte great again” was just a provocation that was never intended to satisfy partisans of either side.)

Those of the first persuasion point to Davao City as living proof of Digong’s greatness: a city that he lifted from chaos and poverty into orderliness and prosperity. But others beg to differ, citing the testimonies of Edgar Matobato, Arturo LascaƱas, and, long before them, the jeremiads of Fr. Amado Picardal.

Personally, I think the fact that Mr. Duterte was able to win a broad coalition of support in the presidential election—across social classes, regions, and political affiliations—is an undeniably great accomplishment. He has gained such a devoted following that he joked once that he can already establish an “Iglesia ni Duterte.”

He was so popular at the dawn of his administration that he could have moved us away from partisan politics, simply by fulfilling his Trudeauesque vow of appointing a diverse Cabinet. Unfortunately, despite inspired choices like Judy Taguiwalo and the unfairly caricatured Gina Lopez, he has not been immune to the favoritism that undermined previous administrations, as evidenced, most recently, by his brazen appointment of Mocha Uson as assistant secretary at the Presidential Communications Operations office.

He could have, moreover, followed up his call for unity by reaching out to his political opponents, including Vice President Leni Robredo who went out of her way to find common ground despite being unjustly vilified. Instead, he resurrected the Marcos specter by allowing the burial of the dictator’s remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

He could have embarked on a bold and inspiring rhetoric of national renewal and solidarity. Instead, his speech has been marked by invectives worthy of Hugo Chavez—and an obsession with the “war on drugs,” informed by the misguided idea that drug users are beyond redemption—and the dangerous notion that the police must be defended regardless of their actions.

And for all the promise it evokes, his “independent foreign policy” has been characterized by kowtowing to China: a disappointing act, coming from our commander in chief. While his outreach to neighboring countries and his special attention to overseas Filipino workers are commendable, surely he can do better on matters of national dignity and sovereignty.

As Mr. Duterte’s first year in office draws to a close, he must channel his political capital to the many other issues our country faces today; he must do so in an inclusive, not divisive, way. Drugs, of course, remain a serious problem, but the problem should be addressed comprehensively and humanely. Importantly, it should not be used as a pretext for impunity or authoritarianism.

Now it cannot be denied that this administration has some great ideas. I, for one, am looking forward to badly needed infrastructure projects and tax reforms. I am still hopeful that peace with the communist and Moro rebels will come to fruition. If Mr. Duterte is what it takes to address Mindanao’s historic grievances and make its people feel part of the nation, surely that has to count for something. But all these—and indeed his entire legacy—can be eclipsed by his broken promises and the deadly war on drugs.

So how do we move forward? The President’s “climate change of heart” leaves the door open for future turnarounds, but much will depend on his supporters and close allies. Who among them will have the courage to acknowledge his mistakes—and tell him to change course?

Greatness has been waiting, but alas, Digong is riding a jetski toward the opposite direction.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 11, 2017:

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