Only the words “disordered” and “confused” can do justice to any attempt to describe the state of Philippine governance, politics, and society in these last 10 months of the Duterte regime, and more than a year after COVID-19 began tormenting these troubled isles.
As distressing as the state of affairs in this country of lost hopes has become, the current chaos could lead to an even greater evil.
The “strong government” many thought the country was finally getting in 2016 that could have helped check the Philippine State’s descent into failure, turned out to be a cruel illusion. That government’s seeming strength — its use of force and intimidation against the citizenry to compel obedience — has further weakened the Philippine State. Empowered by President Rodrigo Duterte, in many places across the archipelago the police and the military have become powers in and for themselves, with their personnel immune from State accountability.
In a number of instances, policemen have killed unarmed citizens without compunction and penalty, and so have some units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Air Force of which has also freely bombed supposedly rebel-influenced communities. The impunity or exemption from punishment of security forces is a sure sign of State weakness and imminent failure.
Strongman rule has failed the citizenry in every area of governance, most specially in the life and death imperatives of containing the COVID-19 pandemic and reviving the economy. There is no visible national plan to address the contagion. When it waned early this year, the regime prematurely took down in the National Capital Region (NCR) its usual lockdown response, only to once again impose it, and then to again take it down in the months that followed.
As the number of cases including the Delta variant surged, it reimposed Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) protocols in NCR this August, to the detriment of the poor and of the vaccination program that is already hampered by the shortage of vaccines.
The regime’s hostile response to any suggestion from any sector for the improvement of its reactive anti-COVID program — if it can be called that at all — helps explain its gross inadequacies.
In 2020, an alliance of medical frontliners called for a lockdown in NCR to enable experts to re-evaluate that program. Although he did place the capital under modified ECQ, Mr. Duterte launched a tirade against the alliance, accusing it of involvement in a so-called plot to remove him from power.
In the current ECQ in the NCR and other provinces, three problems reminiscent of those of 2020 are distressingly evident:
1.) the inadequacy, as a number of city and town mayors have pointed out, of the ayuda (economic aid) for those affected, particularly those workers who have lost their sources of livelihood;
2.) the counterproductive impact of the lockdown on those who are anxiously hoping to get vaccinated; and,
3.) the impending crisis in hospital capacity to care for the infected.
The first is due to the regime failure to include in the 2021 budget any provision for such aid. The second, in which large numbers of people overwhelmed vaccination centers on Aug. 5 and probably helped spread the virus, can be explained by some government sources’ threats that they will withhold aid from the unvaccinated, and Mr. Duterte’s rants that he will have those who refuse to be vaccinated arrested.
As for the third, that catastrophe to public health could have been at least mitigated had the regime, more than a year after, learned enough from the 2020 experience to help construct more hospitals or just additional COVID-19 wings in existing ones by using the billions of pesos at its disposal.
The consequences of this ineptitude are the continuing surge in infections, massive unemployment, and economic decline. But even as the regime and its minions were confusing and alarming much of the populace, the peculiar breed of politicians with which this country has been cursed was not giving politics Philippine-style any rest, and in the process further adding to the chaos.
PDP-Laban’s announcement that it will field Mr. Duterte’s confidant, Christopher “Bong” Go, for president and Mr. Duterte himself for vice-president seems to have written-off a father-and-daughter Sara Duterte-Rodrigo Duterte team in the 2022 elections.
But so unpredictably chaotic has Philippine politics become that it could very well be just a reprise of the Duterte 2016 ruse, this time to prevent his daughter’s being subjected to any scrutiny of her qualifications for the post. She could still be a last-minute substitute for Go, as Mr. Duterte was a substitute for someone else five years ago, two years after he had kept denying any interest in the Presidency.
The roster of possible candidates for the country’s highest elective post is long enough for the 2022 elections to have the same results as those of 2016. In addition to Go and Mr. Duterte’s daughter, the list includes Senator cum boxer Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, and former police chief, now Senator Panfilo Lacson.
Lacson and his running mate, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, claim to be “reformers,” while Moreno and former Duterte ally Pacquiao have distanced themselves from the Duterte camp. Pacquiao criticized the regime policy on the West Philippine Sea and the surge of corruption in the bureaucracy. Moreno has indirectly taken issue with regime claims regarding its vaccination and aid programs. In response, and in another telling indication of regime priorities, the Department of Interior and Local Governments issued but later withdrew a show cause order against Moreno when he was not yet mayor of Manila. Mr. Duterte then threatened to deny “a metro Manila mayor” ayuda assistance.
Meanwhile, neither the 1Sambayan coalition nor the so-called opposition has announced who its candidate for president will be. Both could ideally field Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, who, however, seems reluctant to run for that post, given the results of the surveys and her lack of enough resources to run a winnable campaign. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. has also been mentioned as another possible candidate for the post his father held for nearly two decades (1965-1986).
If there is anything these worthies are succeeding in doing, it is to further contribute to voter bewilderment and inability to make any sense of what is going on, and to decide who to best vote for except on the usual name-recall basis.
Lacson and Sotto’s pretensions at reform are similar to Mr. Duterte’s in 2016, and are repudiated by their five-year record of basically supporting the Duterte regime. So is Pacquiao’s sudden awakening to the reality of the regime’s acquiescence to Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea and the corruption that has been metastasizing in it.
There is the undoubtedly capable Vice-President Robredo, who, however, has not been doing well in the surveys, and whose resources, compared to those of the Dutertes and company, are severely limited. Should she choose not to run, the only choice in 2022 will be, as in past elections, the lesser evil from among the motley crew of far from ideal, falsely reformist, and blatantly clueless candidates.
Even that already bleak possibility, however, might not even happen. In the confusion generated by the chaos that is in many ways the handiwork of the trolls and media mercenaries in the pay of the current regime, the country could end up with the greater evil of another, and quite likely even worse, dictatorship reprised.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).