(The following article was published in the Commentary section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 30, 2016.)
He started out as the reluctant anticandidate and went on to achieve what is perhaps the most dramatic come-from-behind victory in the history of Philippine presidential elections.
Indeed, President-elect Rodrigo Duterte was and perhaps will be the most unpresidential of them all—brash, foul-mouthed, a confessed womanizer and advocate of extrajudicial killings. Whenever he opens his mouth we also open ours, agape at his expletives and uncouth manner of speaking.
But wait, there’s more. Duterte is the first Philippine president to claim to be a socialist. To the shock of the ruling class, he has appointed a leftist peasant leader to head the Department of Agrarian Reform, a leftist activist to head the Department of Social Welfare and Development, former leftists to head the Department of Labor and Employment and the Department of Education, and an antimining environmentalist to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
He is resuming the long-stalled peace talks with the communist-led National Democratic Front (NDF) and has vowed to release all political prisoners for the talks to resume in earnest. And he has appointed nominees of the NDF to two Cabinet posts and several other key positions.
Aside from his strong stance against criminality and corruption, among his notable policy pronouncements are: ending labor contractualization, reducing income taxes, increasing pensions, massive spending on health and education, free irrigation for farmers, clamping down on destructive mining, revitalizing the steel industry as part of a broader industrialization strategy, engaging China in bilateral talks, and adopting a relatively independent, even anti-US, foreign policy. He has expressed readiness to close down Congress and establish a revolutionary government in order to achieve his goals.
By and large, Duterte’s zealousness, folksy charm, progressive pronouncements and subsequent actions inspire hope in the new administration. It has put many activists, who have become so used to patently reactionary, proimperialist and antipeople presidents, in unfamiliar territory. Duterte claims to be a leftist, sounds like a leftist (sometimes), surrounds himself with leftists, and shows a certain disdain for the country’s biggest oligarchs. Is it possible to have an alliance with this chief representative of the reactionary ruling elite?
Duterte himself said that when he assumes the presidency, he will become the enemy. But in the same breath, he said he is extending the hand of peace, particularly to the armed communist and Bangsamoro movements.
His journey from probinsyano to Joma Sison’s student at the Lyceum, his involvement in the national democratic, antidictatorship movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and his long experience as a public prosecutor and mayor of Davao City have ingrained in him an interesting mix of populism and leftist ideology. He is a unique leader well-grounded on the needs and hopes of the masses and with an enlightened understanding of their legal and armed mass movements.
He is seen as a credible and strong leader by the military and police even as he has developed good political relations and bonds of friendship with revolutionaries, among them the late New People’s Army commander Leoncio Pitao aka Ka Parago.
So is Duterte the president that can bring about real, fundamental change in our country? I hope so.
In the fight against drugs, criminality and corruption, he will have to punish the guilty without depriving them of the right to life and due process. He and his punishers will also have to protect themselves from being killed in retaliation for their aggressive crime fighting.
On the economic front, he should immediately deliver on his stated promises of increased and improved health, education and social services. He will have to realign the budget and probably overhaul the bureaucracy to make this happen.
In the medium to long term, what is crucial will be his policy on two key areas: one, agrarian reform and agricultural development, which will determine how the majority of our poor (the landless peasants, small farmers, farm workers and others involved in agriculture) can get out of poverty; and the other, national industrialization, which is crucial to unleashing the huge economic potential of our natural and human resources. He will have to retake the reins of the economy and make government planning and intervention a key positive factor in genuine, inclusive development. This means bucking the neoliberal economic policies that have so far benefited the oligarchs and caused the continued poverty and underdevelopment of our people. It will also mean dismantling certain enterprises controlled and dominated by parasitic foreign and local monopolies.
On the political front, Duterte will have to generate the necessary political backing for his package of reforms, enough to browbeat Congress into passing the necessary laws to achieve them. He will also have to ensure that the peace process with the armed movements are able to address the roots of the conflict. This requires the capacity to bend back and allow radical policy changes and new political and economic structures to achieve a just and lasting peace.
On foreign policy, he will have to play it wise in asserting Philippine sovereignty in the face of the escalating shadowboxing between the United States and China in the West Philippine Sea. He will have to break free from the stifling, neocolonial framework of US-PH relations and creatively engage China both as an ally and a threat.
Such challenges are great but not unsurmountable. If Duterte is serious in his promise of change, we the people will be there to help him make it a reality.
Teddy Casiño is an activist who served for three terms in Congress as a Bayan Muna party-list representative in 2004-2013. He is now back in the parliament of the streets.