On July 22, 2019, President Rodrigo R. Duterte delivered his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA). In ways that cannot be said of his previous addresses, this SONA carried a certain significance that portends for us what to expect of the remaining years of the Duterte administration. Following an election marked by the whitewashing of opposition bets in the Senate, the 2019 SONA was preceded by the release of survey results that showed President Duterte defying historical trends by sustaining high approval ratings well into the middle of his term of office. Previous administrations had their approval rating and popular support either having plateaued or sinking at the same juncture in their term. President Duterte, however, has been able to retain a more than 80 percent approval rating and, more amazingly, managed to limit his disapproval count to a single digit. The combination of the predominance in the Senate of administration- aligned Senators and record-levels of Presidential popularity seems to indicate an administration poised to push its weight around in the next three years rather than the usual lame duck second-half of previous administrations. The question of whether it can push its weight around requires an analysis of the nature of the political coalition he had cobbled together, and the major personalities involved in that coalition. This is a topic for another day. If, however, President Duterte decides to use to his advantage the combination of a Senate that leans toward supporting the administration and the massive popularity that he continues to enjoy, what are we looking forward to in the next three years? What, if any, indications do we get from the 2019 SONA?
The fourth SONA delivered by President Duterte was in form and substance no more exceptional than his previous three. It was not that much longer than any of the previous ones, nor did he use emphatic language any more than in the others. It does, however, point to the direction that his administration is going to take in the next three years. It is somewhat of a cliché to say that it is a presentation that highlights continuities in the Duterte administration but it is also noteworthy in that once key components of Duterte’s political agenda have been left on the wayside.
The SONA is a Constitutionally-mandated accounting of the President on what the administration has accomplished in the past year, and, more importantly, what it intends to do from thereon. Over the years it has become an occasion for ceremony, with the glitterati turning out to be seen. Beyond the pomp and circumstance, however, the event marks the only time in a year that the President meets with the whole of the legislature to lay out the administration’s plans and how the legislature’s work should support it. In the centrifugal tendency of the country’s political dynamics, with pretty much everything emanating from the President’s office (and in the case of President Duterte, his personality), one would think that this is tantamount to the President giving the legislature its marching orders for the year. Indeed, the transactional nature of Philippine politics and its typical characterization as an arena of elite bargaining has made it certain that the President delivers the SONA on friendly grounds. The opposition is normally little more than a parody of St. John the Baptist’s voice in the wilderness—delivering an alternative SONA after the President’s own has been given that is mostly a laundry list of the perceived failings of the administration.
Looking at this year’s SONA, it is perhaps important to, like Harry Potter’s snitch, open at the end. President Duterte pointed out at the final part of his fourth SONA that the days ahead (the final three years of his administration) are going to be a “period of consequences.” They will see the culmination of his work, and his priorities. Whether this is a threat or a warning (to his critics), or a promise (to his supporters), it portends the idea of sustaining the momentum on his administration’s agenda.
And speaking of sustaining momentum, President Duterte remained consistent on his promise regarding the maintenance of peace and order, and following through on the drug war. Perhaps a twist to the issue was his emphasis on the convergence of terrorism and the drug war. He pointed to the discovery and seizure of caches of shabu as the initial act that eventually led to the Marawi siege in 2017. In bringing the two major issues together, the President highlighted the threat posed by drugs, and the exceptional nature of that threat due to its reach into even questions of national security. The President has remained consistent on the priority given to the drug war of his administration, and it seems that last year’s promise that the war on drugs will be “relentless” is something that can be projected into the remaining years of the Duterte presidency. His call for Congress to legalize the death penalty for heinous crimes (which includes most activities connected to illegal drug trafficking and use) only emphasizes his seriousness on this. His promise that there will be no slackening in the pursuit of his administration’s agenda is going to be most evident in the unrelenting fight against illegal drugs. This will mean a continuing primary role for the Philippine National Police, and the prospect of a continuing war of words with the International Criminal Court. Iceland will forever be recorded with infamy in the Duterte administration’s list of “non-friends.”
This unrelenting obsession with peace and order has also spilled over into his declared intent to end the decades-long communist insurgency in the Philippines. He pointed to a strategy that will address the issue piecemeal by negotiating with local insurgent forces through the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict instead of dealing with the National Democratic Front and its leadership based in the Netherlands. This is in contrast with his full support for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the fast-tracking of efforts to push development in Mindanao, and thereby eliminating the root causes of conflict there.
The 2019 SONA presents a promise of continuity, but it also reveals contrasts in the Duterte style of governance.
These constantly harsh themes in the Duterte program, however, go hand in hand with his concern for sustaining economic development, and improving the delivery of government services. His pronouncements on education, and the alleviation of poverty were little more than motherhood statements but were very much in line with his populist program. This only makes it more important for the Trabaho Bill (Train 2) to be passed to help provide the financing for the programs that will back up his economic and social development policies. To be fair, the Duterte administration’s economic team has kept its work under the radar but nonetheless has contributed to sustaining the economic growth of the country.
The 2019 SONA included pronouncements on the creation of new departments and other government institutions. Looking at the proposed Department of Overseas Filipino Workers, one wonders as to what this will do on top of the existing bureaucracy that already serves OFW processing and deployment. Given President Duterte’s injunctions in the SONA to reduce red tape and corruption in government, will these new agencies precisely contribute to the existing problems with red tape and corruption that already bedevil the country’s bureaucracy?
GLOSSING OVER DISCONTINUITIES
The promise of no slackening of efforts on the part of the Duterte administration, however, raises questions about certain issues that were not addressed in the SONA but which had in the past been key features of the Duterte campaign when he began his pursuit of the presidency. In particular, the non- mention of Charter change and the shift to a federal system of government hangs heavily in the minds of people. Outside Metro Manila, this had been a basis of support for President Duterte. It has, however, been left out of the SONA. It would seem that Charter change, particularly federalism, is no longer in the works for the next three years.
Given short shrift as well is the issue of the West Philippine Sea. His promise to give a lecture on why the idea of him agreeing to let Chinese fishermen fish in the waters of the West Philippine Sea was constitutional did not materialize. There were a few short sentences that simply repeated his claim that insisting on facing up to China on this issue would just lead to a conflict that the Philippines could not possibly win. This is, however, one area where the Duterte charisma has failed to sway Filipino sentiments. It has not led to a dampening of support for him, but neither has he been able to convince Filipinos that his approach is the correct one.
The SONA of 2019 presents a promise of continuity, unrelenting and sustained continuity. It also, however, reveals contrasts in the Duterte style: defiance and the promise of unremitting effort against domestic threats and foreign critics, but withdrawal in the face of uncertainty on an issue of key significance to the administration (like the pursuit of federalism), and in relations with China. If the SONA is anything to go by, the remaining three years will be characterized by more of the same as we have come to expect from the Duterte administration. It may be different from the perception of a lame duck second-half for previous administrations, but neither does it show reflection on what the administration could work on to be more effective. In this sense, the Duterte administration seems content to continue past trends. — HERMAN JOSEPH S. KRAFT
The writer is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.