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Feb 27

Answers to Heydarian’s Questions

Responses I gave to a questionnaire from Richard Heydarian:

Q. How does Duterte compare historically with his predecessors? what makes him unique?

A.

Three things set him apart: age, with half a century separating his world-view, language, and thinking from the majority of the current population; purely local experience, which means all things are viewed through the lenses of the mayoralty, a position that allows far more impunity than most other positions; and the uniquely concentrated methods applied during three decades of local strongman rule: the bullet is the means by which the ballot is assured, not in terms of actual intimidation at the polls, but in the policies on which the candidacy has been anchored.

In these, he is very much a representative of traditional expectations of a president. Appearances matter: to be impatient, volcanic, ruthless (with enemies and supporters alike), decisive, bold and confident. As a people, we like that. To be willing to use the full arsenal of presidential power to decide, castigate, discipline, and rule. We expect that.

We also quickly tire of it and look for a new twist. Whether in the days when presidents still ran for reelection or since 1992, when outgoing administrations run proxies, the victory of a candidate is premised on what came immediately before. In 2016, Aquino was Hamlet, agonizing over difficult choices with a morbid frame of mind; Duterte is Richard III presently still at the stage of boasting that the winter of our discontent has been made (his) glorious summer. Hamlet was sincere, and can be exasperating; Richard III succeeded at first, but was ultimately brought down by that old nemesis of patriarchs, hubris.

Al McCoy recently delivered a lecture in UP pointing to a desire for order –and the promise of being able to impose and maintain it—as a defining characteristic of presidencies that have dominated the popular imagination. A quote from the past is useful to illustrate this: “The people care more for good government than they do for self-government… the fear is that the Head of State may either exceed his powers, or abuse them by improprieties. To keep order is his main purpose.” (Manuel L. Quezon, as quoted by Francis Burton Harrison in his diary entry for December, 23 1938.)

Q. Do you see direct threat to democracy under current administration?

A.

I do believe people are responsible for their actions but the system can also create a recipe for crisis.

The democracy restored in 1987 with the new constitution already showed itself as flawed from the start, with a reactive, and not proactive, attitude towards government and its institutions. Its hyper-detailed provisions as a reaction to the dictatorship removed the fundamental requirement of all constitutions –the means to revisit and revise its provisions as time reveals challenges its drafters could not anticipate. Nor was it able to fully flesh out and give teeth to those provisions that were new and boldly reformist.

The result is a paralyzing combination: neither the political class, which, like all political classes is obsessed with holding power, nor the public, which can agree on broad themes (accountability, results, honesty in public service) but disagrees on the particulars that need to be changed, can figure out how to improve the system because the system has proven nearly-impossible to change as far as the constitution is concerned. The political class responds with a hard-headed, repeated, effort to find loopholes which enrages the population. Mercifully, there are enough scheduled electoral confrontations (mid-terms, presidential elections) to periodically let off steam.

One could also add, another unintended consequence of this paralyzing situation: the absence of runoffs in a multiparty presidential race, which results in minority presidencies saddled with all the responsibility but with limited authority because of the absence of a majority mandate. We see this in the traditional realignment of the House after every presidential election, when the old majority becomes the new majority almost instantly, but confronted with a senate that usually, more accurately represents the electoral and factional divisions in the country. Yet the political class’ short-sighted response is to keep insisting on unicameralism and even parliamentarism, which are merely changes for the convenience of the political class and not a quest for a more representative government.

Both the president and an organized subsection of his support base, either hint at, or actively promote, a revolutionary government. In that sense they have a cohesive plan with a clear outcome. Critics of the president do not have either an overarching plan (not even whether he ought to be impeached, neutralized in the mid-term elections, or worse –for our democracy at least—simply ousted). The president is nearly monomaniacal about the war on drugs, but his critics are neither organized enough, nor prepared, to attempt to present a comprehensive set of alternative solutions.

In the meantime, the space for debate has shrunk, and the traditional platforms for discussion are shrinking, too. There has been a continuous threat to democracy for thirty years, ever since the system itself failed to provide for the means to periodically revisit its rules for political engagement. What has accelerated is the decline of civic consciousness. In that sense it can be argued that frustration with the system, which merely jolts from a phase of mild reformism to another phase of irresponsible populism then back again, fuels the acceleration of democratic decline: from all sides, mind you, whether People Power on one side (a decline because it would nullify a democratic election) or revolutionary schemes (which by their nature will destroy more liberties than it can ever hope to foster afterward) on the other.

Q. As a former admin official, how do you understand the seeming popular backlash (or lack of appreciation) for the previous admin?

A.

The quote from Harrison provides the context for addressing this question. The most heavily NGO-oriented government in a generation engaged in a lot of processing, which NGOs love, but its significant reform initiatives proved an abstraction to too many. Programmatic reform, to use NGO-speak is vital, but viewed with suspicion the life-blood of all elected regimes: to undertake tangible improvements not on what is needed, but in the things the public deems important, too. So, essentially a boring six years with few major scandals, but too many appeals for patience as things were being fixed in a painstaking –and painstakingly slow—manner, particularly for things that mattered to the urban middle class.

Another story illustrates my point. Leading up to the mid-term election in 2013, I visited Camiguin and saw a huge amount of public works going on. Yet administration allies were worried they might lose the election, despite the signs of construction all around the island. Why was this the case, I asked. Because, one barangay official said, the President and the administration refuses to put its names and faces on billboards; we aren’t getting credit for what’s going on. But people can’t ignore it’s being done, I replied. Yes, but DPWH is not a candidate, was the response.

Most of all, some policies represented an existential threat to significant factions. PPP was one, threatening the cycle of dependence with all politicians, regardless of affiliation. The China policy was another, to some segments in private business and those in the political class who’d found Chinese support useful for regime survival in 2005. The third was a simple case of demographic inevitability: six more years of the 2010 coalition would permanently close off the prospects for the septugenarians who’d been repudiated back then.

Yet the larger part of the electoral whole, we forget, was focused on the continuation of the broad policies of the 2010 administration, but divided on who was best equipped to pursue it. At first, the then-Vice President flew the populist flag, but this was left tattered by allegations of corruption. It took Mayor Duterte and his GMA-FVR-Marcos coalition to pledge both restoration of the status quo, and to reframe the election as one about confronting the existential threat of drugs.

The result was a repudiation of the administration in May.

 Q. What do you think was the true (good and also points of mistakes/deficit) of Aquino?

A.

Good:

Six years of a presidency personally uninterested in self-aggrandizement was a necessary and welcome relief. The record in terms of infrastructure outside Metro Manila was respectable and untainted by corruption. Radically expanding 4Ps, Education reform (K to 12), Reproductive Health, a Competition Commission, synchronizing ARMM with national elections, an independent and trusted Ombudsman, military reform were difficult and historic achievements.

Bad:

There was an overdose of the Cult of Cory and Ninoy, and overkill on Yellow particularly on the part of older members/organizations of the coalition. The dead therefore became responsible for the living and the living restrictively colored opinion of the dead.

There was a horror of lawsuits and corruption that led to so many restudies of key infrastructure projects in metropolitan areas, that it fostered a belief among businessmen and the middle class that a decisive, even if corrupt, administration would be preferable to an honest one that inconvenienced the public. There was, because of the macro approach to problem solving, a grating dismissal of some public concerns such as traffic, the MRT/LRT (and solutions did not happen in time to change public opinion), and management of the PNP did not match the discipline and professionalism that characterized the handling of the AFP.

“Kayo ang boss ko” was a mistake, and one that grated on the nerves. First, because there were enough spectacularly inept appointments to overshadow everything else, particularly in the last year of the administration, so it made the phrase a hollow one. Second, it went against the grain of public expectations of the presidency, as discussed above.

The administration failed to hold the Center, politically. This should not be confused with what remains an unmatched record, to date, for good public opinion throughout the life of the past administration, and the generally high opinion people retain for the former president. But his time was up, his coalition melted away, proving that the only permanent thing is a desire for change.

Q. In short, how could someone like Duterte win after years of reform under Aquino.

A.

It mustered a more cohesive, ruthless, and adaptable minority that, however, was larger, and more motivated than the other minorities. It reframed the entire election as one about order. It consolidated the factions: Ramos, Arroyo, Marcos/Estrada, the Left, to reverse the verdict of 2010. It pledged non-stop excitement after a dull, NGO-oriented six years.

 

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