7/23/2018
Save face

They tried to show that this year's State of the Nation Address will be different. No listing of achievements, no off-script moments, no cussing. For the first, the government organized what they called "pre-SONA" events, where heads of relevant government agencies do the listing down of achievements.

For the second and third, well, it is a miracle that Rodrigo Duterte stuck to the script for the most part. I counted one off-script remark, but that was related to what he was talking about before - and that was kept short and sweet. Also, no cussing, which must have been a sigh of relief for network censors and sign interpreters alike. And true enough, this year's SONA clocked in at 47 minutes.

The short length is not just because he kept his thoughts to himself, although, again, someone must have done something extraordinary to prevent a stubborn man like Duterte to do that. Part of it is because he's really saying little new. Apart from the signing of the Ease of Doing Business Law - which compels government agencies and local government units to streamline processes with the view of making public transactions faster, providing them with a deadline of up to three years to implement reforms - and a call for replacing the current quota system on rice imports with a tariff-based one, everything he's said is a variation of everything he's said before: his views on mining, his views on (supposedly) independent foreign policy, his views on corruption, his views on why we need federalism.

Perhaps the constraints applied on him managed to illustrate instead the frustration Duterte has with being unable to do most of what he promised, important considering he became president on the vow of delivering change immediately. Nothing illustrates that better than the delay in the SONA itself, triggered by a long-brewing leadership struggle between representatives Pantaleon Alvarez and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, culminating in the later being sworn in as House speaker, with the microphones off and in full view of guests and diplomats, as the former was receiving the president minutes before he was supposed to speak.

We thought the president could push through with whatever he wanted - laws of, at the very least, questionable benefit, made in his image, drafted according to his likeness - because of a supermajority he held in the House of Representatives. (It was harder to do in the Senate, even if he also had the numbers there.) But today he called, once again, for the passing of the National Land Use Act. Today he acknowledged that he cannot easily solve "endo", and has called for an outright ban on all contractualization. He's marked both of those as priority legislation, but why did it not go anywhere in the two years he's in office? Where were their heads at?

Duterte can claim some legislative achievements, however. The first package of tax reform is now under effect, and while he claims it's given government more funds to help the poorest of the poor - particularly through unconditional cash transfer programs - inflation is rising, with the cost of everything rising as new taxes are slapped on fuel. Government's denials that shifting taxes from personal income - which means consumers have more to spend - to an essential part of the country's supply chains has proven misplaced. But then, we really can't undo this law. The question we ought to be asking is whether the money collected by new tax laws will really be invested in essential social infrastructure, ensuring every Filipino gets to play in a more equal playing field. Budgetary reforms are still at play, but questionable spending by some government agencies have started reentering the news cycle. It can't be all about new roads and more giveaways, after all.

And then there's the question of federalism, a change so fundamental you'd imagine everybody would want to understand it before dipping their toes in the pool. But we've focused too much on questions of whether political dynasties will not be allowed under the new set-up. A federal system - one which we are not used to, not even those who live in the ARMM - will have so big an impact on Filipino lives, from how they work to how they earn to how they raise their families, that it's a crime the government thinks all we need to get on their side is a massive propaganda program talking about, one can conceive, only the pros of federalism. Duterte claims a new charter would solve, once and for all, the problem of Imperial Manila growing fat at the expense of everybody else, but it's a question we cannot answer in the next four years, much less the next four months.

But then, that's what the president is. Now, question his intentions all you want, but if anything he's a guy who wants things done immediately. It's why he wants the legislature to speed through the four remaining tax reform packages, to further accelerate growth - whose growth, I wonder? But his subdued SONA illustrates his frustration at not being able to get a lot done. You can imagine why he's so angry at his critics, questioning every little thing his proposals bring to the table. If only they weren't there, he seemed to want to say, I could get a lot more done.

In his speech today, interestingly, the president portrayed his critics as, essentially, backwards sentimentalists, looking to keep the status quo at the expense of the progress this country really needs. "Your concern is human rights; mine is human lives," he said early in his address, aiming at the critics of his campaign against illegal drugs, which saw him run over due process for the sake of ultimately questionable results. He, on the other hand, wants only the best for his country; he wants to move forward with essential, radical reforms. Think of the children.

But then, the members of his supermajority are fighting each other. Is it because Alvarez, who embodies Duterte's machismo dialed up to 11, is unpopular? Maybe. But then, Philippine politics is about who gets to be in charge now and who gets to be in charge later. You take power now, you get taken down a notch, you bide your time until you can go up the rostrum again. (Imagine the vilification of anyone associated with Noynoy Aquino now with the vilification of Arroyo, or Joseph Estrada, or even Fidel Ramos at the time of charter change proposals.) Yes, it's always been about power plays, but that seems to be the only part that excites our politicians. We have a supermajority that we are afraid of, because they have the numbers and they'll do anything their Lord and Savior asks them to do, but here we are - a supermajority showing cracks, and a SONA filled with Duterte's greatest hits, only his heart doesn't seem to be in it. His victory lap was outstaged by yet another power grab, one that, if you think about it, puts his promise of peace in Mindanao in jeopardy.

It can't just be because they asked him to stop cursing and going off-script. It has to be because he's realized he cannot do everything he wants to do, even if he has the means to do so, not just because "haters will hate", to quote showbiz reporters, but because not everything he wants will work for the Philippines. And so he has to save face, by continuing to run over everything else.

And your responses...

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