Tag Archives: presidency

Column: No conspiracy, only resistance

Published on January 17, 2017.

From where I stand it is clear to me that there is no conspiracy to oust President Duterte; what there is is growing resistance to Dutertismo. Those are two entirely different things.

On previous occasions I have identified three troubling aspects of the Duterte presidency: the high number of killings in the war on drugs, the hasty pivot away from the United States and toward China, and the rehabilitation of the Marcoses. As best as I can tell, these are the sources of rising public discontent, and the proof is accumulating both in the surveys and in the streets. The same polls that show a general support for the war on drugs reveal an equally robust majority concerned about the killing of mere suspects; a majority also mistrusts both China and Russia, countries the President likes because they share his contempt for human rights. The corpses, mainly of poor Duterte voters, continue to pile up in the alleys, while anti-Marcos protesters have taken to the streets and will do so again.

But to appreciate that there is no conspiracy, all one needs to do is take a look at the disarray of Duterte critics, who cannot agree on messaging, plan a sustained program of political action, or even unite behind Vice President Leni Robredo. There ARE movements, or stirrings at least, but as far as I can tell they are issue-oriented: fighting the culture of death, including the proposed lowering of the age of criminal liability; determining the future of the Philippine-American military relationship, especially in discussions within the armed services; campaigning against the Marcoses’ return to power.

All these are legitimate political exercises; only those who equate criticism with ouster plans would see them as destabilizing. Continue reading

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Column: Why we must criticize Duterte

Published on December 27, 2016.

Today marks President Duterte’s 180th day in office; by one measure, his famous campaign pledge to crack down hard on crime and illegal drugs in six months has reached its deadline. Of the 6,000-plus Filipinos who have been killed in the President’s war on drugs, however, many have been clearly innocent: children caught in the crossfire, victims mistaken for other people. Tomorrow, the Catholic Church remembers the Holy Innocents—the first-born children massacred on Herod’s orders in the jealous king’s attempt to kill Jesus. It should also be an occasion for Christians throughout the country to reflect on the true costs of Mr. Duterte’s war, and to harden our opposition to it.

I have argued before that because “Christianity believes in the possibility of redemption,” any initiative which does not respect this belief, such as the President’s all-out offensive, mocks the Christian faith. “I realize that …. it is certainly the duty of the policeman to protect the community from criminals, even to the point of shooting them. But the police killings in the war on drugs share a common characteristic: Except for the odd case, all of the suspects were shot in the head or in the back. There was no attempt to disarm or to maim, if the suspects were in fact fighting back.” (We should note that this is exactly how ex-president Fidel Ramos criticizes Mr. Duterte’s war, as an abandonment of long-standard rules of engagement.) The way the war on drugs is conducted, however, “does not only run counter to the best practices of effective antidrugs campaigns in the world, or to the constitutional guarantees of due process and the protection of human rights, but it is also, strictly speaking, unchristian.” Continue reading

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Column: This President needs help

Published on December 20, 2016.

If they haven’t yet, President Duterte’s friends and allies need to organize an intervention. He has been shooting himself in the foot even more than usual these last several days; his closest friends should recognize this self-destructive behavior for what it is: both compelling proof that the messenger is running away from the message, and a cry for help.

The President’s many variations on the theme of giving up are not the cause for concern. All presidents have spoken of the terminal loneliness of the job; every president since Marcos has said something about how forbidding or fundamentally unfriendly Malacañang is. Mr. Duterte’s repeated expressions of regret or wistfulness about running for office and winning the presidency—summed up in his ejaculation, “Susmaryosep! If you only knew, if I could just take it all back”—are perhaps more poignant than those of other presidents, but they follow a pattern. They are, in a word, familiar.

It is rather the President’s statements, where he speaks against his own interest, that should concern his friends and allies. This conduct is not normal. Continue reading

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Column: Different from other presidents

Published on November 29, 2016.

At a forum hosted by the Asian Media Information and Communication Center last Friday, I had a chance to paint a picture of the conditions journalists labor under when covering President Duterte. With Marites Vitug’s own take, it was meant to prompt discussion:

President Duterte is an unusual subject, different from most other presidents, in many ways. A large part of the challenge of covering him can be explained by these differences. Let me cite four related pairs of unusual.

He was a truly reluctant candidate. This helps us understand why, six months after the election, he can still startle with unexpected talk about his readiness to give up his post. He is the only president who speaks of resigning if certain policies are already set in place, who talks of sitting down with alleged coup plotters, who pledges to leave the presidency if his critics can meet certain (admittedly impossible) requirements.

At the same time, he is the one president who is fully committed to use the full range of presidential powers, the one who casually mentions imposing martial law or suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, who threatens to marshall legislative consensus to abolish an office created by law, who readily takes to the bully pulpit to name suspect oligarchs or suspected criminals.

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Column: Duterte’s three changes are here

Published on November 8, 2016.

Despite what its various spokesmen say, the new order is not markedly different from previous administrations in the fight against corruption, or the drive to fill the infrastructure deficit, or even the pursuit of peace. I write this knowing that excellent people are in charge of certain key departments, including Ernie Pernia at Neda, Liling Briones in Education, Judy Taguiwalo at DSWD. I realize that Vice President Leni Robredo has been given the room she needs to make an impact in housing. I know that peace stalwarts like Jess Dureza and Irene Santiago are hard at work to build on what has been done before.

But if there is a difference, an improvement, in these matters, it is a difference in degree. And as far as the anticorruption campaign goes, the new administration may be said to retrogress. (See third concern below.)

On three concerns, however, it is clear that the Duterte administration is fundamentally different from other post-Marcos administrations. Change has come, in three deeply unsettling ways:

The killing spree. Unlike any other presidential candidate in Philippine history, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte campaigned on a promise to kill fellow Filipinos — as many as 100,000 criminals, he said, whose corpses will clog Manila Bay. Was he indulging himself in hyperbole, or merely joking, or in earnest? Some 4,000 kills later, the answer should be clear. He was dead serious.

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Column: Does Duterte know how to listen?

Published on October 11, 2016.

Last April, ex-President Fidel Ramos told me and a few others, with a twinkle in his eye, that he was voting Ro-Ro: not Roxas-Robredo, but Rodrigo Duterte and Leni Robredo. It was about time we had a president from Mindanao, he said. He also said he felt partly responsible for the Duterte candidacy because he had encouraged it as far back as the early 1990s, when he was president.

This is a debt of gratitude Mr. Duterte recognizes. The very first words he said at his inaugural address were in honor of his benefactor: “President Fidel Ramos, sir, salamat po sa tulong mo (thank you for your help) making me President.”

On the 100th day of his presidency, Mr. Duterte received a startling gift from Ramos: a strongly worded column in the Manila Bulletin, summing up the first 100 days as “Team Philippines losing badly.” Continue reading

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Column: President Duterte, statesman

Published on September 27, 2016.

LAST FRIDAY, President Duterte revisited his quarrel with the European Union and said, among other things, that he did not care for the act-like-a-statesman argument.

“Tapos hindi daw ako statesman. Excuse me? Hindi daw ako statesman. Ang pagkaalam ko, tumakbo ako ng presidente, wala mang posisyong statesman doon sa ’min, bakit mo ko pipilitin maging statesman?” Duterte said. (“And I’m no statesman? Excuse me. I’m no statesman, they said. What I know is, I ran for President. There is no position of statesman there at home. Why will you force me to be a statesman?”)

Then he added, in English: “I never took a course of statesmanship and I do not intend to be one.”

We understand where the President is coming from. He campaigned for the presidency on his tough-as-nails, curse-like-a-sailor persona; he did not run as Mr. Nice Guy. If we see the national situation from his perspective, there may really be no time, no margin, for niceties and nuances.

But in fact the President must learn to act like a statesman because it comes with the job. His new position is not only head of government but also head of state. It is in that second, higher capacity that he is expected, not only to meet the timeless meaning of statesmanship (not thinking of the next election or the next Senate committee hearing or the next news cycle) but also the more time-bound one: speaking carefully on behalf of an entire nation he represents. Continue reading

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Column: The President as lawyer

Published on August 16, 2016.

IT HAS been some time—30 years, in fact, or an entire generation—since a lawyer served as president of the Philippines. Before San Beda graduate and city prosecutor Rodrigo Roa Duterte, there was UP graduate and bar topnotcher Ferdinand Edralin Marcos. That time did not end well.

What can we expect from another lawyer in Malacañang? President Duterte has used two constitutionally mandated ceremonies to speak directly to this question; he has also spent some time in his ongoing series of visits to military camps to say something about what we can call his philosophy of law. Believing, as I have written before, that in the democratic project the law is too important to be left to lawyers alone, I would like to put in my two centavos’ worth. (We all should.)

Before 1986, when the Marcoses were chased out of the presidential palace, almost all the presidents were lawyers. There were only two exceptions: Emilio Aguinaldo, the generalissimo who led the successful Philippine Revolution at the turn of the 20th century, and Ramon Magsaysay, the defense secretary who broke the back of the Huk insurgency in the 1950s. All the others were lawyers, and from the start promising ones: Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, Manuel Roxas, Elpidio Quirino, Carlos Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal, and Marcos were all bar topnotchers, a meaningless distinction in other countries but in the Philippines a definite political advantage. Even Jose Laurel, the president of the Second Republic under the Japanese, was also a topnotcher and a heavyweight lawyer.

In the first 50-odd years of Philippine self-government, then, lawyers served as president for 45.

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Column: Courage as statement: a newfound respect for Miriam

Published on July 5, 2016.

NOW THAT President Duterte has taken firm control of the reins of power, it is time to shift the focus from the epic of the 2016 elections and the melodrama of a tumultuous transition to the plain prose of governance. But allow me one more look back—this time at Miriam Defensor Santiago’s extraordinary presidential candidacy.

I have criticized the ex-senator in this column more than once, and through her office she has responded forcefully to some of the criticism. I was skeptical of her third presidential run; knowing that the historical record shows that a candidate wins the Philippine presidency on the first try or not at all, I was even suspicious of the motives behind her decision to run again. If she is ailing from cancer, and the surveys show her languishing at the bottom of the field, why even bother to run?

This is not to say that only candidates with a real shot at winning the main prize should throw their hats in the ring; I have voted for candidates who needed Biblical-scale miracles to win, including Jovito Salonga in 1992 and Raul Roco in both 1998 and 2004. But these candidates—Salonga with his running mate Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Roco and his 1998 vice presidential candidate Irene Santiago—seemed to me to represent not only the possible (I kept reminding myself that Salonga was the only senator to top the Senate race thrice, or that Roco was a top vote-getter in 1995 and an early survey favorite in 1998) but also the ideal.

They represented something larger than themselves, or their personal ambition. What did Miriam represent in 2016? It took me a long time to understand; it was only when she entered the debate hall in Dagupan for the third presidential debate, just a few weeks before Election Day, that I finally understood.

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Column: From wimp to pimp?

Published on May 17, 2016.

IN A wild, improbable campaign with many twists and turns, here is the final, improbable twist:

Rodrigo Duterte is Benigno Aquino III, part two.

The 2016 presidential election turned out to be the 2010 vote all over again. Duterte comes to the presidency with the same mandate, the same level of popular support, that Aquino enjoyed in 2010: Like Aquino, he rode a genuine groundswell to capture 15 million votes; like Aquino, he is comfortably ahead of the second-ranked candidate’s 9-million total; like Aquino, he led a field with at least four strong candidates. (Mar Roxas as the Joseph Estrada of 2016: another improbable turn.)

At this point, the reader who believed that the change-is-coming rhetoric of the Duterte campaign was code for anti-Aquino sentiment would be almost apoplectic. How can the tough-talking man-of-the-people be compared to the mild-mannered, out-of-touch elitist? Surely they are complete opposites!

Not in terms of electoral mandate, they’re not. Continue reading

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Column: Between Mar and Grace

Published on May 3, 2016.

ALLOW ME, for the third time in nine years of column-writing, to list my choices for national positions at stake in the coming election—not as an endorsement but as an attempt at transparency. These are who I am voting for; weigh my opinion writing against my vote.

(To be sure, and as I hope I have proven over the years, voting for these candidates is no guarantee that they will be spared from criticism or their initiatives always assured of support. The true ideal of journalism is not neutrality, but independence from the people we cover or, indeed, vote for.)

I am voting for Leni Robredo for VP, for reasons I have already outlined in “Leni, ‘last man standing’.” She is the last person standing between us and the abyss: a Marcos restoration. It does not look likely, but I continue to hold out the hope that Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, who forcefully reminded the public in the April 10 vice presidential debate of the true Marcos legacy, will somehow give way to her.

But I have not yet decided on who to vote for president.

My choice is between Mar Roxas and Grace Poe. Continue reading

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Column: The case against Binay, Duterte, Roxas

Published on April 12, 2016.

ON THE day the campaign period for national positions started, I wrote “The case against Grace,” an attempt to write about the presidential candidates “from the point of view of their vulnerabilities.”

I phrased the objective this way, optimistically: “How can a candidate lose the presidential race? That is to say, which of a candidate’s weaknesses are election issues? I would like to worry this question in a new series of columns.”

It has been two months since that burst of optimism, however, and I have yet to follow through on the plan. Now, with the elections in 27 days, I’m afraid there’s time only for one omnibus column on Vice President Jejomar Binay, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, and former interior secretary Mar Roxas. What is the one weakness, the one election issue, that presents the most serious threat to their candidacy? This issue can be summarized in a simple image, or phrased in a single question—a nagging, even unanswerable question. Continue reading

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Column: The most unforgettable debate

Published on March 22, 2016.

FOR THE first time, a presidential debate in the Philippines matched the argumentative tone and reckless rancor of the current American format. Whether this is, in the end, a positive development for our democratic project is an open question.

Don’t get me wrong. As I told friends in TV5, the public witnessed the most unforgettable debate in Philippine political history because the network stood its ground. Congratulations are definitely in order.

The second PiliPinas debate, sanctioned by the Commission on Elections and held on the grounds of the University of the Philippines Cebu, made up for its much-delayed start with a riveting series of sharp exchanges between the four presidential candidates. Vice President Jejomar Binay and former interior secretary Mar Roxas, the two candidates with the most experience in national office, could reasonably claim that their rivals had “ganged up” on them—Binay for the allegations of corruption against him and his family, Roxas for the accusations of Aquino administration incompetence and Liberal Party insincerity.

But there were intense exchanges, too, between Roxas and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, between Roxas and Sen. Grace Poe, and between Binay and Poe. (Duterte had a few choice quips for Binay during the debate, but the most consequential exchange between the two longtime local executives took place before the debate started, when Duterte added his objection to Binay’s attempt to bring documents to the stage.)

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Column: The 3 nations voting in May

Published on March 8, 2016.

A MONTH into the official campaign period, we can say confidently that there is real movement in the surveys and that the presidential race remains a tight one. This is the central paradox of the 2016 elections, and it may well be solved in the same way Zeno’s famous paradox was solved: by walking.

In the closest presidential contest since 1992, it may be the campaign which has logged the most kilometers, and put in the most hours on the road, that will win in the end.

The tightness of the race seems to me to be magnified by the composite nature of some of the voter allegiances. I have been puzzling over this aspect of the race for some time, but I do not know if I have found the right language with which to describe it. Consider this a first pass.

Let me start with the obvious: Each of the candidates has a core following, a base of support that will vote for them no matter what. If we anchor our count on the last eight Social Weather Stations surveys going back to November/December 2014, we can for purposes of discussion equate each candidate’s lowest rating as the size of his or her loyal base. In this view, both Vice President Jejomar Binay and Sen. Grace Poe have a support “floor” of 21 percent; we can extrapolate from this number and say that a fifth of voting-age survey respondents will vote for Binay and Poe, each, no matter what. Former interior secretary Mar Roxas has a floor of 15 percent, while Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte enjoys a core support of 11 percent. (In the first of these eight SWS surveys, Duterte actually registers only a 5-percent rating, but that poll was taken before the mayor became serious about his presidential ambitions.) Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago has a support floor of 2 percent.

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Column: Duterte’s ‘sovereign function’ and other sidelights

Published on February 23, 2016.

I wanted to devote today’s column to the astonishing handpicked hypocrisy of the Rappler lawsuit against Commission on Elections Chair Andy Bautista, but perhaps another day or another format. For now I wish to write about some of the sidelights I witnessed at the first presidential debate last Sunday in Cagayan de Oro.

Let me start at the beginning, and with a confession: When the program started, I was overcome by excitement. (I don’t think I am betraying confidences if I say that my seat mate in the front row, Comelec director James Jimenez, was uttering his “Oh, wows,” too.) The fact that all five presidential candidates were in attendance, standing at their No Bio, No Boto lecterns and ready to make the best case for themselves, inside a campus in my hometown and before a live TV and online audience, struck me as a small but significant victory for our imperfect democracy.

A top political strategist advising one of the presidential candidates described the series of Comelec debates (the next one is on March 20 in Cebu, the third on April 24 in Dagupan) as a “game changer.”

I do not know whether that is in fact the truth, but it has the potential to be true. The failure to attend last Sunday’s debate would have been damaging for any of the candidates, especially when one considers that that failure would have been witnessed by tens of millions of Filipinos who watched the show in their homes, at their workplaces (on their phones, according to some of the sales clerks in Centrio Mall), even (quite literally in the case of supporters of Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte gathered in Divisoria in Cagayan de Oro) in the public square.

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Column: Eyes on the first debate

Published on February 16, 2016.

PROTOCOL AND prudence require the Vice President of the Philippines to be protected by a close-in security detail. Will these gentlemen be included in the list of 10 staff members each presidential candidate is allowed inside the venue of the first official presidential debate, in Cagayan de Oro City? Cavite Gov. Jonvic Remulla wanted to know.

Remulla is the kind of natural politician who will stand up in the middle of a meeting to literally pick up a seat or two and bring them to the table, just to make sure women at the meeting are not left standing. The polished way he asked the question made his request—he wanted the security men to be added to the list—sound even more reasonable than it probably deserved to be perceived.

Are we making an exception for Vice President Jejomar Binay’s security men? Akbayan party-list Rep. Barry Gutierrez retorted immediately. Continue reading

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Column: The case against Grace

Published on February 9, 2016.

EVEN A stranger passing through the Philippines must know that the official campaign period for national positions at stake in the May 2016 elections starts today. This might be a good time to review our readings of the major presidential candidates, but now from the point of view of their vulnerabilities. In the series of “path to victory” columns I wrote last year between Aug. 4 and Sept. 8, I did touch on the question of losing, but only briefly—and from the perspective of the respective campaigns.

How can a candidate lose the presidential race? That is to say, which of a candidate’s weaknesses are election issues? I would like to worry this question in a new series of columns. Let me start with Sen. Grace Poe, whose fate now rests with the Supreme Court.

In “Grace Poe’s path to victory” (Opinion, 8/25/15), I ventured that the 2013 Senate topnotcher had “the twin disadvantages of a newcomer. She has not yet had time to plant firm roots for a nationwide network of her own, and she faces residency issues. (Because she is a foundling, her Filipino citizenship cannot be in question; the law is clear. But then again, the Supreme Court found a way to justify Renato Corona’s midnight appointment as chief justice, and Juan Ponce Enrile’s petition for bail in a nonbailable case.)” Continue reading

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Column: A president with only one-fifth of the votes

Published on January 19, 2016.

AT A corporate retreat of the UN Development Programme and its project partners in Tagaytay City last week, I had a chance to very briefly revisit an idea I first proposed in 2009, as a way to understand Philippine presidential elections.

In “The 20-percent presidency,” I offered five theses to frame my reading of the 2010 vote. The third thesis posited that “There are two kinds of presidential mandates: the 20-percent presidency and the 40-percent presidency.” I wrote: “The inevitable multi-candidate race in 2010 will follow either of two templates: the 1992 elections, which saw four evenly matched candidacies (with two more viable enough to end up with at least 10 percent of the vote), or the 2004 elections, which were marked by two candidacies of relatively equal strength. (With a little help from Garci, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won with 39 percent of the vote, against Fernando Poe Jr.’s 36 percent.)”

As we know, Benigno Aquino III won the 2010 contest, with about 43 percent of the vote. That made him the third post-Edsa president to secure a 40-percent mandate, after Joseph Estrada and Arroyo, and left Fidel Ramos (with 23 percent of the vote in 1992) as the only member of the exclusive 20-percent club.

Will Ramos induct a new member into the club after the May 9 vote?

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Column: Outrageous Duterte wants out

Published on January 5, 2016.

It’s been four months since Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte visited the Inquirer, and I see no reason to change my original view: He is deeply conflicted about running for the presidency. His increasingly scandalous conduct on the campaign trail—call it the politics of mutual outrage—confirms me in my view. He is looking for a way out.

I realize this reading runs against the grain. There is even a popular or at least trendy view that the famous mayor and his political brain trust masterminded the entire “Duterte-serye” of the last few months: The coyness of a now-on, now-off, now-maybe-perhaps-possibly-on-again campaign is thought to be deliberate, strategic.

“It keeps him in the news,” I have heard even news veterans say—as though being perpetually in the headlines and on TV newscasts in the last 18 months has been an unadulterated asset for, say, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano. We should all be wary of imposing the frameworks we are most familiar with on reality. It doesn’t seem to me the case that his newsworthiness explains Duterte’s undeniable mass appeal. In the exact same way that American media initially misread the ridiculous Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign as fed by the oxygen they freely provided, we may have some members of the Philippine media who look at Duterte, not as the vanguard of a kind of insurgency, but as a creation of the news cycle. Continue reading

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Column: Duterte’s path to victory

The last of the “path to victory” series, published on September 8, 2015. 

I think Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is genuinely conflicted about running for president. His “big announcement” yesterday afternoon categorically renouncing a presidential bid must have dismayed his emerging network of supporters; at the same time, he must have been acutely aware that a genuine draft is extremely rare in Philippine politics. Did he do the right thing?

Last month, I tried to assess the election prospects of Mar Roxas and Jojo Binay: two declared candidates for whom not running is not an option. (It is a mistake to think that Binay will avoid a presidential campaign to ease the political and legal pressure on his family; becoming president is the vice president’s best defense.) I also tried to weigh the chances of a reluctant Grace Poe; as a first-term senator, she has the option to run again for the Senate in 2019. Duterte falls in this second category; he is on his seventh term as city mayor. Having taken a break from running Davao City in 1998 by serving in Congress (where he says he was bored beyond tears) and then again in 2010 (when he served as vice mayor), Duterte can look forward to two more terms in City Hall.

Also, and even though he doesn’t look it, he is already 70; he is just a few years younger than Binay. When he visited the Inquirer several days ago, he was forthcoming about where the strongest resistance to any presidential plan lay: his family. The summary he offered of his family’s main argument was in metaphorical Bisaya: Why are you even thinking of running, when you’re starting to walk with a limp? When he left the newsroom past midnight, after more than three hours in the hot seat, he did seem to have a slight but detectable kink in his walk. Continue reading

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