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Is Duterte a Blessing in Disguise?

Duterte is many things, but uncontroversial is not one of them. From making rape jokes to encouraging vigilantes to take criminal justice into their own hands, Duterte is perhaps one of the most divisive figures in Filipino, and even Southeast Asian, politics. Is Duterte exactly what will drive the Phillipines forward as a blessing in disguise, or will he set it back in terms of economic and socio-political progress?

Rodrigo Duterte, more fondly known as ‘Digong’ to the Filipino people, was actually a lawyer by profession before entering politics. He then began an illustrious career in law which was followed by a stint as a prosecutor in Davao City, a heavily urbanized city on Mindanao Island. After the Philippine Revolution of February 1986 in Manila, which involved Filipinos protesting electoral fraud and decades of Ferdinand Marcos’ totalitarian regime leading to his resignation, Duterte assumed mayorship of Davao City. He allegedly reduced the crime rate of the city, but opponents have accused him of using ‘death squads’ and violating human rights. It is clear that whether or not Duterte is a blessing in disguise, he will remain a deeply complex figure whose popularity non-Filipinos might find hard to understand.

To understand the legacy Duterte will leave and how he rose to power, it is essential to understand the base of his support. Duterte was elected by two major voting blocs—people from large southern island of Mindanao, and Filipinos working abroad who worry that their kids back home will involve themselves with drugs and gangs. It is apparent why Duterte’s harsh and uncompromising stance on drugs, almost reminiscent of US President Nixon’s “War on Drugs” in the 1970s, would appeal to this voting bloc. Duterte’s popularity among southerners is also easier to comprehend when taking into account the Islamic terrorist activities carried out by the rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Duterte has taken a firm stance against the rebels and even went so far as to meet with the movement’s leaders in September of this year.

There are indeed arguments that the president’s policies will be highly detrimental for the country, but if that were the case entirely, it would fail to explain his extremely high popularity ratings. In a recent poll conducted by Asia Pulse, a NGO public opinion polling body in the Philippines, it was found that 86% of Filipinos trust Duterte. Duterte does, however, have his merits in terms of his uncompromising way of running the country.

It is important to note Duterte’s consistent support for progressive policies on women’s rights in the Philippines. Even though Duterte is known for his misogynistic comments about women, most notably his infamous remark about regretting missing a turn to rape the murdered Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill during the 1989 Davao Crisis, he has done, and hopefully will continue to do, much for women’s rights. He was the first politician in the Philippines to pass the Woman Development Code (Davao City Ordinance 5004). This legislation mainstreamed and institutionalized gender sensitivity in his city. Additionally, it codified what constitutes sexual harassment and assault against women. He also established a Women and Children Protection Unit in Davao City to provide psychological intervention for victims of physical and sexual assault, as well as founding the 24-hour Gender Sensitive Crisis Intervention Unit for Women and an ordinance that pushed for the Women’s Health Clinic. In February 2014, he joined the globally coordinated event One Billion Rising for Justice Campaign, calling for the end of violence against women and children. These policies have been lauded by Luzviminda Ilagan, a congressional representative for Gabriela, one of the most active women’s rights groups in the Philippines. The federal government has even cited these policies as examples to be implemented on a national level. However, it is of course, important to note that such policies are hard to quantify in terms of efficacy and could have little to no impact on the actual reality of life on the ground.

Yet, Duterte has also publicly said that the norm for a woman to “have babies, and [be] treated like a maid” are all things of the past. While it seems as though Duterte’s government was indifferent about the budget cuts to the Reproductive Health Law, Duterte reiterated that he would strengthen the government’s family planning program, by giving incentives to couples who would opt to undergo ligation and other birth control methods. This is particularly significant in the staunchly Roman-Catholic country, where access to birth control and abortion is extremely low. He was reported in the New York Times as expressing a desire to decrease the poverty rate from 21.6% (2015) to 14% by 2022, through addressing the desperate need for low income women to access contraception. Actions do speak louder than words and Duterte’s pro-women stance and policies should outweigh his political incorrectness.

Duterte also strongly supports a strongly centralized government in the Philippines, which would only benefit its growth in terms of economic prosperity and political harmony. Given that the Philippines is a fragmented country—both geographically and ethno-linguistically—the current political view of everyone having the same needs as a nation is not practical at all. Federalism, on the other hand, combines both a central body of government that works in tandem with localized government and aims to distribute economic activities amongst the other regions instead of being solely concentrated in the Metro Manila region. Besides redistributing the profits of economic growth evenly, it will also work towards solving over-congestion and overpopulation in the urban cities which arise from rural-urban migration. The system will render each state ‘autonomous’ and in terms of managing their economic policies and attracting businesses and investments. This will arguably allow each state to use the money they make instead if sending a bulk of it to Manila, and then the surplus will be re-allocated to them.

State governments will be in competition against each other, which means they will have to work hard to come up with the best and most attractive economic policies that will bring investors in. This is slightly reminiscent of the United States’ own approach, which could perhaps make the policy more appealing to the United States. As Jan Albert Suing wrote in a fiery piece for Huffington Post, Duterte is seen as “leading a new movement of committed and politically conscious Filipino millennials. He has shaken the complacent and corporation-friendly centrist and right wingers of this country to their sycophantic, self-assured core.” Perhaps this is a sign of good things to come, as economic performance during Duterte’s first year of presidency was robust with the expectation that this will continue through 2018 and 2019. However, it is expected that the economic policies Duterte intends to pursue will stimulate aggregate demand and might cause ‘overheating’ of the economy, resulting in rising inflation. Many economists were initially also concerned about the high levels of unemployment in January 2017 . However, this was tempered by the decline in rates of unemployment to 5.7% in April. Perhaps the most positive economic outcome of Duterte’s presidency so far is that there has also been a record low underemployment rate, which is a positive sign of an economy utilizing its full productive capacity.

Duterte’s stance on foreign policy must not be ignored. He has reportedly called Obama a “son of a whore” and condemned the US repeatedly as being hypocritical and unable to restrain him. However, this might not be terrible for the Southeast Asian region in general, especially in the face of the ever-expanding influence of China. His regional foreign policy successes include seemingly forcing Chinese troops to withdraw from the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal, a 150 square km triangular chain of reefs and rocks located west of the Luzon island in the South China Sea. The Philippine coast guard reported on Friday that no Chinese ships had been sighted at the shoal for three days, and that Filipino fisherman could enter the Shoal unimpeded for the first time in four years.

Of course, it is imperative to understand the potential damage that his divisive rhetoric will have not only domestically but in an international context. Considering how similar Trump is temperamentally to Duterte, it would not behoove Duterte to lash out impulsively, especially given the historically cozy ties the US has maintained with the Philippines. This would not be a good time to cut ties with a global economic superpower, seeing as the world is just beginning total recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. And yet, Duterte is making valuable progress in areas of extreme importance that have traditionally been ignored—such as women’s rights and an overhaul of the political system in the Philippines. Duterte is an exceedingly erratic figure, no doubt, but whether this will spell out disaster or a manifest in economic prosperity only time can tell. So far however, he appears domestically as popular as before, and is riding on a wave of nationalistic fervor that seems to be leading him to reelection in 2022. It is hoped that he will lead the Philippines out of a decades long history of impoverishment and into a new era of success.

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