Published on June 28, 2016.
THE TRANSITION from the Aquino to the Duterte presidencies gives us an opportunity to compare the two presidents. I have chosen the following three points of comparison; others may wish to discuss other reference points. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte comes out ahead in one, President Aquino leads in another. The third is a toss-up, with perhaps the Filipino public ending up losing.
First, their electoral mandate. No one of the presidents elected under the 1987 Constitution has received a majority of the votes cast in their respective elections. The combination of a multiparty setup and a first-past-the-post system all but ensures that all presidents of the Fifth Republic win with a mere plurality of the vote.
Of the five presidents elected since 1987, Mr. Aquino in 2010 won the largest share of the vote: 42 percent. Fidel V. Ramos became president in 1992 with only 23.5 percent. At 39 percent, Duterte’s share is the second smallest after Ramos’ not only since 1987 but in history.
But, statistics aside, what seems striking about the Duterte transition is the rush to join the Duterte ruling coalition. I wish to be clear: In 2010 and in 2013 the Aquino coalition in the House of Representatives also forged supermajorities. But this year the political class has conducted itself in even more obvious self-interested ways. To give just one example: I am certain that, even before Duterte, senators in other years have asked presidents-elect their preferred candidate for Senate president. But this year we have witnessed the spectacle of senators going to Davao City and saying, in public, that they wanted to know Duterte’s choice. So much for the Senate’s traditional independence.
Takeaway: Because of his reputation and his language (see below), Duterte even before taking his oath of office has been able to widen his electoral mandate to an extent Mr. Aquino could not have imagined in 2010.
Second, their war on corruption. It doesn’t sound like it, judging from the leaks and pronouncements coming from the Malacañang of the South, but Mr. Aquino was elected on an anticorruption platform, too. The anticorruption fight then is something the two have in common. But could it be they have different definitions of corruption?
Many lawyers might agree with Duterte’s analysis of the legal case pending against ex-president Gloria Arroyo; the former prosecutor thinks the case is irremediably weak. In this light, his campaign pledge, during a sortie in Pampanga, to “release” Arroyo makes sense. But what about his pledge, during a sortie in Cavite, to ensure that Sen. Bong Revilla will be allowed to post bail? He may find far fewer lawyers who will agree with him that the nonbailable plunder case against
Revilla is weak; indeed, the plunder cases against Revilla, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile are solid: powerful arguments backed by hard evidence.
The other day, the President-elect said that if he found out that a member of his Cabinet was engaged in corruption, he would whisper in that Cabinet member’s ear: “Go.” Why not “You betrayed me, and you’re going to rot in jail”?
Takeaway: Mr. Aquino’s largely successful war was undermined in part by his unmistakable loyalty to friends and political allies. If the release of Arroyo and the grant of bail to Revilla are an indication, Duterte’s war on corruption might be fought in city streets but not in the corridors of power.
Third, their choice of language. Their choices were already evident in their respective presidential campaigns. Mr. Aquino decided he was much more comfortable, more fluent, in Filipino; unlike Joseph Estrada, he decided to make it his default language, even in the most august of official functions. I think this may help explain why, over his six years in office, he has retained consistently high approval or satisfaction ratings. He is better heard this way (if not always understood).
I hope I am only being fair if I describe Duterte’s choice as the language of intimidation. The expletives he deploys are sometimes meant for entertainment (as in his victory rally in Davao City, when the occasional “p*tang-ina” would meet the crowd’s standard of approved scandalousness and result in laughter and applause), but together with his many references to killings and to death, they help create a climate of fear, or at least a threatening air.
It’s contagious language, too. Has any incoming finance secretary ever spoken with an incumbent official the same way Carlos Dominguez (a good choice for finance, actually) spoke with Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina? By Dominguez’s own recounting, he called Lina to tell him not to issue implementing rules and regulations (or IRRs) for the new Customs and Modernization and Tariff Act. “I called Bert Lina to say not to tie my hands,” he said. Otherwise: “There’s going to be hell to pay.”
Takeaway: Confrontational language may become the new norm, coarsening an increasingly uncivil public discourse.