Opinion & Analysis

Cracks are appearing in Duterte's armor

1:06 AM, September 29, 2017

Philippines:Deadly war on drugs, failure to deliver on election promises is starting to see support for Philippine strongman falter.

A group of urban poor dwellers put up barricades after occupying a government housing project north of Manila. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

President Rodrigo Duterte's spin doctors like to hype a monolithic power base. It is a noisy base, raucous and all too ready to fight dirty for their hero. But Duterte's steady backtracking from his biggest social and economic promises have eroded the foundations of his autocratic rule.

His biggest challenges, analysts say, will come from the poor that swept him into power.

Most reportage and social media noise in the Philippines focuses on the death toll of Duterte's drug war. In a country where the average family has six members, the 12,000 deaths recorded in the last year represent a humanitarian crisis.

There is no support for widows and orphans of the drug war. The government has just slashed the budget for drug rehabilitation centers by US$40 million.

There is no transparency in the killings police acknowledge.

The head of the national police says he needs a green light from the president to make reports public. The rest of the killings are waved off as the handiwork of vigilantes, and the implied message is, they help police keep city streets "safe."

The president has also used the drugs issue as a pretext for his planned overhaul of he country's political system.

Already, his allies have set the wheels in motion for the suspension of local elections in barangay or villages.

Duterte, with little concern for legalities, warns that he will strip incumbents of power, based only on flimsy and often inaccurate, intelligence reports on drug ties.

He plans to install his allies as officials in charge, in preparation for a planned push toward federalism.

Duterte has used the drug issue to keep critics on the defensive.

A series of assassinations of people he had tagged as drug lords increased intimidation levels.

The president has also reinstated police officers charged with the murders of high profile suspects.

His politics of fear and his passionate adherents have created an aura of invincibility.

"I think we must acknowledge that Duterte is popular and that this stems from a widespread sense that what the country needs is a strong hand to 'fix the mess'," says former legislator Walden Bello.

When will the sheen wear off?

Given the attacks, should critics just lie low and wait it out?

Bello believes the best defense is not to moderate criticism but to sharpen it and to continue to stress that democracy, human rights, and due process are among the cornerstones of Philippine political culture, and are non-negotiable values.  

There are signs that Duterte's momentum may be faltering.

While he remains popular, Filipinos have consistently warned him in surveys that they do not agree with drug war killings.

Impunity also breeds careless and cocky ways.

A series of brazen killings in Manila appears to have snapped the patience of many, including some of Duterte's supporters.

On Sept. 15, the national police command sacked an entire city force — only days after Duterte made a fantastic claim, that all the killings were a conspiracy to tarnish his image.

Months back, you would have seen hundreds of thousands of followers echoing the president.

Last week saw Duterte's social media followers distancing themselves from the ridiculous claim.

The police announcement of the sacking of the police force in one city elicited sighs of relief from Duterte supporters.

Police backtracked on random drug testing in communities after a lawyer's group filed a legal challenge.

Also recently, police officials blinked, retreating from a previous order barring the release of crime scene reports.

Bello has no illusions about any immediate major defeat for Duterte.

The people's anger over elite democracy politics is real and justified.

The main reason Duterte remains strong is people's repudiation of the system and deep inequality that replaced the Marcos dictatorship, Bello adds.

The bolting by the radical of the left from its testy, rocky alliance with Duterte, is seen as major blow for the strongman though it has been predicted for months now.

Duterte is his own greatest weakness.

As his drug war faces increasing hostility, Duterte cannot afford to turn back on his progressive pledges. But that is exactly what has happened.

To keep his control of security forces, he has steadily backtracked from his biggest social and economic promises.

He has held back incentive pay for teachers. Soldiers have realized he cannot double their pay.

His war in Marawi has cost the country $60 million and counting. He doesn't even have a major catch to show for it; just a city reduced to rubble and hostages still in rebel hands.

Rehabilitation will need at least $1 billion and restive Muslim communities warn they will resist if their lands are ceded to big investors.

Big business has also forced Duterte to go slow on the promised end to labor contractualization.

The government has just overturned a popular ban on open-pit mining. Public transports groups are demanding a fare hike.

Tax reform touted as pro-poor will actually increase what the poor pay in terms of sales and value added taxes.

His biggest challenges, analysts say, will come from the poor that swept him into power.

Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and commentator based in Manila.

Source: UCAN

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