7/25/2016
Too much faith

If you came to Rodrigo Duterte's first State of the Nation Address hoping for some grand statement on what he intends to do with his six years as president, well, there isn't much. Arguably there isn't really much said.

Not that he had an empty speech. If anything, it at least felt a bit more substantial than a typical Noynoy Aquino speech. If you subscribe to the belief that Duterte is a no-bullshit president that gets things done, then that's your showcase.

I wouldn't call it his best showcase, though. He clearly got bored as he read from his prepared address. For a moment I wasn't sure if he believed everything he said. He clearly wanted to speak a bit more freely, and when he found a chance, he did just that. Those off-script moments - often sign-posted with assurances that they are, well, off-script - were when he felt a bit more confident about speaking, although those moments were when he went wildly off course, disrupting what probably should have been a well-constructed speech.

But whatever, right? Duterte is a no-bullshit president that gets things done, right? He's done more in his first month in office than Noynoy has in all of his six years, right?

Excepting his signing of an executive order guaranteeing freedom of information in the executive branch - and, showing his further commitment to transparency, he asked the legislature to pass the long languishing FOI bill into law - all his administration has done is to posture themselves for the things they want to do. It's not a bad thing, but it's hardly anything to boast about. But then again, we live in a world where what's considered true depends on how many feel a particular thing. Sidewalks are cleared? Change has come! Drug users are disappearing left and right? Change has come!

Okay, so what has Duterte exactly vowed? To be frank, nothing new. Again, it's not unexpected, but his discomfort with the script, his seeming urge to rush through the boring parts, led to a feeling (again, a feeling) that the whole SONA was written to appease as many people as possible. Better traffic? Check. Faster Internet? Check. Lower income taxes? Check. Continuity in economic policies? Check. He himself had suggested that some of the items in the address were added by his team rather than by himself, so whether he'll commit to some of these things remains to be seen.

Duterte had a chance to shine when it comes to issues that, for some reason, he seemed uniquely capable to address. He declared a ceasefire with communist insurgents effective immediately, paving the way for peace talks between the government and the Communist Party of the Philippines. On paper, it's a good move: there really is no point in making people afraid of those who espouse a viewpoint that's different from the status quo's. All this time people with more, um, progressive beliefs have been portrayed as rabble-rousers who only want to disrupt things, the leading cause of our being eternally stuck behind as a nation. If it takes someone like Duterte to make them part of the discussion rather than isolated outsiders that automatically get the blame for everything, then so be it.

He was a little more defensive when it came to his so-called war on drugs, implying that some people are getting in the way of what should be a winning battle. The media, he says, are looking for a big fish - they're all outside of the country, he said in another of his off-script moments. And what's the point of being merciful to them if these people peddling drugs have not been merciful to us? He hasn't exactly applauded his policemen, but by suggesting that human rights cannot stop pushers from being killed, he hasn't exactly condemned the seeming spike in extrajudicial (and lately indiscriminate) killings within the past month. At the very least, his announcement of a focus on building drug rehabilitation facilities suggests a government that, in a rush to look like they're doing something, have not entirely thought out the plan.

I personally think Duterte missed an opportunity to properly explain what he portrays as the magic pill to solve all of the Philippines' problems: federalism. Down in part to his off-script rambling, he meandered in his first great opportunity to explain to the Filipino people what this shift in government systems is all about. In theory, decentralizing power to regional or local government units - we are not sure what exactly they plan to do - is good, as officials become more responsive to the needs of their constituents. But we can't just vote for federalism because Manong Digong says so. We need a proper discussion on this.

But does that even matter? Just look at the state of discourse today. When you as much as express some reservations over a particular aspect of Duterte's month-old presidency, you're already against change. You call for due process; you get called a coddler of drug users. You question the need for emergency powers to solve Manila's traffic, you get called a slowpoke who wants everyone to suffer. Nuance did not exist during the Aquino administration, what with Noynoy's "either you're with me or against me" mindset - but all that seems to have gotten worse since Duterte took over.

To Duterte's credit, though, he knows he can't afford to piss people off. He can't annoy a group of people to appease another. He's savvy that way. It's when he openly wonders why he became president. It's when he makes a passing remark about not looking to be in power for a long time - a passing remark being a big thing, considering how often Noynoy made a fuss about that. But he wants to push through with the things he - or his team, I don't know - want to push through. It's a weird spot, but then again, it's very early days.

That fact hasn't stopped his supporters from exalting. Duterte is a no-bullshit president! He gets things done, not like that idiot! Neither have his critics continued to rail against him: Duterte does not care about human rights, or our sovereignty, or anything else! At the end of his way-longer-than-planned speech, we end up picking the things we want to hear and run away with it. That leaves us with one question, still: what exactly does Duterte want to do?

As the answer to that question really depends on which side of the fence we find ourselves sitting in, well, one thing is clear to me: we still have put way too much faith in this president, the same way we put too much faith in the previous one, and the one before that, and the one before that, and...

And your responses...

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