Duterte’s “strong” political will?

By Maria Elize H. Mendoza, BA Political Science alumna, University of the Philippines Diliman

In the May 2016 elections, 16 million Filipinos elected Davao City mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte (“Digong”) as President. Duterte served as Davao City vice-mayor from 1986-1988, mayor for seven terms from 1988 to 2013 (interrupted briefly due to term limits), and representative of the first district of Davao City from 1998-2001.

Duterte’s policies across his lengthy political career have earned him both praise and criticism. He is commended due to beneficial policies in Davao City such as smoking bans in public places, the institutionalization of a 911-like emergency system, strict liquor and firecracker bans, and many more. On the other hand, he is criticized by both national and international bodies due to allegations of human rights violations which are seen as distinct characteristics of his iron-fist leadership.

From the time of the election campaigns to his presidential victory, Duterte has issued strong statements for the national crackdown of illegal drugs. Clearly, eradicating the drug problem is on top of the President’s agenda and this is evidenced by his consistent rhetoric in his interviews with local media. The President even went as far as cursing international bodies and leaders – the European Union and former U.S. President Barack Obama to be exact – on their criticisms against his unbending anti-drug policies. The conduct of anti-drug police operations, infamously known as Oplan Tokhang, shows the persistence and determination of the Duterte administration to clear the country of illegal drugs. This, coupled with Duterte’s achievements as Davao City mayor, has given him an image of a leader with strong political will.

From an aggressive stance against illegal drugs, the President seems to have taken a step back when it comes to dealing with the ongoing territorial disputes concerning the South China Sea. In recent years, China has exhibited increased aggression in the territorial dispute.

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines over China’s nine-dash line claim based on its “historic rights.” Having won the arbitration case, the Philippines is expected to assert its legal victory especially now that we have a leader who seemingly exudes “strong” political will. However, as compared to the strong reports on the anti-drug campaign, Duterte’s statements regarding the Philippine action on its claims imply fear and hesitation to deal with a determined China.

The most recent manifestation of this fear and hesitation is the soft stance of the ASEAN Chairman’s Statement released during the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila. It is important to note that the Philippines holds the Chairmanship of ASEAN in its 50th year. Thus, the crafting of the Statement primarily lies in the hands of the Philippine leader. There appears to be no clear call to action in the Statement on how the Philippines will push for China’s recognition of the Hague ruling, especially since China has blatantly ignored the said ruling. This has now led to a series of debates and criticisms over the President’s attitude towards China, particularly on how Duterte’s “strong” political will appears to have wavered when it comes to dealing with China.

There is no doubt that the Philippines has plenty of internal, domestic problems that need to be solved. Aside from the drug problem, there remain to be excessive corruption, inequality, poverty, and disregard for basic human rights in Philippine society. However, one must also realize that the Philippines does not exist in its own exclusive sphere: it is a part of a region as much as it is a member of the international community. As such, a national leader’s actions and priorities should not merely focus on the domestic level but must also take regional and international issues into account.

Thus, the strength of President Duterte’s political will lies not only in his determination to solve problems at home, but also in how he asserts the Philippines’ place in the greater international political environment.

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