The Duterte Legacy: ‘Change Scamming’ Indeed

By Kezo Andre Javier

Cartoon by Aureus Ken Pupa

If there is one line that would sum up the presidential bid of then―Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, it would only take three words―change is coming. Now, as Duterte is set to step down from the presidency, one can see that the present situation of the country is far different from what it was six years ago. The current administration indeed brought the change that its chief executive promised during his campaign. But to say that this change is all positive is outright wrong. In fact, we may have even taken a turn for the worse, and it does not look like changing anytime soon.

During one of his weekly addresses by the end of 2021, President Duterte took pride in saying that he was able to fulfill almost all of his promises during the campaign. However, he was quick to point out that his administration was not perfect, but he ‘tried his best’ especially with his flagship war on illegal drugs. Well, he was right on the point of them not being perfect because his leadership was very far from perfection just based on his performance in the economy, justice, and politics throughout the past six years.

Economic Meltdown

The Duterte administration is best judged against the goals that they set themselves. At the beginning of his term, his economic team crafted the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-2022 which laid out their targets for the whole incumbency of the president. But based on the latest Statistical Indicators on Philippine Development (StatDev) Report of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in 2020, the government is likely to fail in most of its targets across various sectors of the economy since data show that 141 of the 300 indicators will not be accomplished. 

Examining these indicators further, the latest StatDev reveals that shelter and housing have the worst performance since all of its goals are set to be failed. The government has targeted over one million units of socialized housing and around 360,000 units of low-cost housing to be delivered by 2022. However, by 2020, they were only able to deliver 86,642 for socialized and 54,430 for low-cost housing, respectively. This failure can also be seen in other sectors, even in governance. The government planned to reach the 50th percentile rank on the Corruption Perceptions Index but only managed the 36th percentile rank in 2020, a decrease from the 43rd percentile rank that the previous administration left in 2016. Even with the pandemic as an excuse, the administration is still set to fail based on this assessment in 2020 when the pandemic has still yet to spread. From these figures, it is clear that the Duterte administration’s management of the economy brought the country some significant steps back from where it was before.

While the overall health of the economy is regaining ground, the administration still failed to control the impact of COVID-19 during the onset of the pandemic. Data from the World Bank shows that the Philippines’ gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 9.6 percent in 2020. Historically, this is the worst economic decline, even worse than the seven percent drop in 1984 and 6.9 percent in 1985 during the final years of Martial Law. To picture this better, a contraction of the GDP may signal an increase in unemployment and minimized spending from both businesses and consumers. 

True enough, the country went through these scenarios, especially when the strict lockdowns were imposed following the uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases. But blaming it all on the pandemic would be outright wrong because based on data gathered by IBON Foundation, the Philippines was the worst-performing Southeast Asian economy in 2020. While the neighboring countries were able to contain the spread of the virus, the Philippines continued with its lockdowns without effective interventions to address the health crisis. This is a clear indication of the government’s incompetence during one of the most consequential crises in human history.

Meanwhile, on the side of upholding justice, the 2020 StatDev reveals that the government will fail in achieving its target of improved rule of law and protection of fundamental rights. While the report showed optimism for most of the targets in this sector, the target of percentile rank 50 in the World Governance Indicator - Rule of Law became unattainable due to its worsening state, From the baseline of 43.27 during the end of the administration of the late President Benigno Aquino III, the percentile rank dropped to 34.13 in 2019. The same goes with the Fundamental Rights in the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index where the 2015 figure of 26.55 percentile rank fell to as low as 12.39 in 2017 and 2018, making the goal of 29 percentile rank in 2022 unlikely.

Selective Justice System

Throughout his six years in power, Duterte led the country with an iron fist, particularly in his flagship war on drugs which he vowed to accomplish within the first three to six months of his term. Now, his presidency is almost up and the illegal drug trade has never been eliminated. In fact, his drug war may have instead worsened the justice situation in the country as thousands of alleged drug suspects were killed during police operations, with authorities using the “nanlaban” card even against the innocent. The government reported that more than 6,200 were killed under this flagship campaign, but that may be way less than the actual number as human rights groups claim it to be more than 10,000. He is even facing possible criminal charges in the International Criminal Court after the latter found evidence indicting him of crimes against humanity.

In addition, the Duterte brand of justice has been clearly exemplified in his administration. In 2017, his government jailed opposition Senator Leila De Lima for alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade. Five years later, witnesses retracted their testimonies, saying they were only coerced by high-ranking administration officials, including former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, and that De Lima is innocent. Meanwhile, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee has drafted a report recommending the filing of charges against the president for supposedly defending the government supplier Pharmally during its investigation for anomalous transactions, particularly the awarding of government contracts despite the company being “severely undercapitalized”. The report stated that Duterte “undermined” the Senate investigation and attacked the Senate especially his most vocal critics. From this, it is clear where the chief executive drew the line – get to his good side and one will be protected, or get to the other and one will get persecuted.

Rise of a Populist

But more than the economy and justice situation in the country, it is in the political landscape where the Duterte presidency made the most significant mark. He consistently displayed his populist stance throughout his term, as shown by a strongman rule and preference for similar world leaders such as Russia’s Vladmir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. In particular, this pivot towards a friendlier approach to China has affected the Philippines’ assertion of its rights over the West Philippine Sea. His softer stance on the territorial dispute has let China get away with its incursions despite the Philippines winning in the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Overall, he changed the way Filipinos perceive their leaders, leading to the rise of authoritarian nostalgia, particularly for the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. 

Moreover, the chief executive made his impact felt in the media industry where he tried to stifle critical press, even leading to him being identified as one of the world’s “press freedom predators” in 2021. With critical media out of the equation, his regime paved the way for the rise of social media, which allowed for open-source content creation. Because this space is not regulated, numerous disinformation spread quickly and many have fallen victim to fake news, particularly those glorifying the Duterte administration and diminishing his critics. Even his administration and himself participate in the spread of these false information to control the narrative for the people. 

The widespread disinformation under his watch proved to be the most consequential as it helped decide the fate of the 2022 elections, with the leading presidential candidate using it as an express ride to Malacanang. The late dictator’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, won by a wide margin for the presidency and vice presidency, respectively.  

While he slowly built up the foundations of populist politics for the years to come, Duterte also did his work on the other side of the game – reducing the opposition. During his term of office, the president’s politics turned the tide against the liberal opposition, particularly that of the Liberal Party and his vice president, Leni Robredo. The increasing polarization of Philippine politics put the party and Robredo in a bad light while promoting the populist agenda for the administration. This was clearly exemplified as the genuine opposition coalition, Otso Diretso, did not win any seats in the 2019 senatorial elections. Even in the most recent elections, the opposition only managed to grab a seat in the Senate for the progressive incumbent Risa Hontiveros. The Duterte administration did its best to target critics and practically silence the opposition, and it seems to be a continuous trend given the impending presidency of another populist leader.

The foundations of Philippine democracy are anchored not just on the voice of the people but also on the working checks and balances mechanism and a genuine opposition. When the administration holds strong influence in all aspects of governance just because of the huge mandate they were given, they will be free to do whatever they want with their power. Duterte has been consistent with this since 2016, with a supermajority in Congress and a stacked Supreme Court. 

Now that Marcos Jr. is set to rule with a majority win and a decimated opposition, it is even more imperative for citizens, supporters, and critics alike, to safeguard the pillars of democracy and ensure that power will not be abused again. The new administration may promise policy continuity. But with the same policies proven ineffective in addressing the pressing issues of the country, everyone needs to play their part in making us achieve the promise of true change that was never fulfilled.


Edited by Nehmia Elyxa Relano
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