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Philippines welcomes a president of surprises

MANILA (SE): Hidden from the public eye and away from the scrutiny of the media, the newly-elected Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as the 16th president of the Republic of The Philippines on June 30.

Riding to victory in the May 9 poll, Duterte came home on a populist vote promising a new type of presidency which he says will achieve radical change in the areas that the general population has been fed up with for decades.

Citing the ills that most affect the daily lives of the grassroots population—corruption in business, the judiciary, law enforcement and the public service—people flocked to his support in the hope that the forces that have so long robbed them of a decent life may change.

Although making promises can be a dangerous thing, as someone might believe you, every president begins life with a bag full and, as Luis Cardinal Tagle counselled prior to the inauguration, “No one, or group can claim that they are able to solve everything.”

Duterte’s predecessor, Noynoy Aquino, also promised to attack corruption, but with the exception of a few high profile arrests, achieved little.

However, what he did achieve was a big rise in the nation’s economic performance, but his inability to stem the corruption meant that only the elite of the elite were able to notice the difference.

While Hong Kong operates under a system of one country, two systems, The Philippines is more like one country, two worlds—one of extravagant opulence and the other of poverty, which ranges from the demeaning to the critical.

Its government has been described as a head without a body, as it exists in isolation from the general population, neither understanding its needs nor caring much either.

Conversely, the body has been called a trunk without a head, as it neither knows, understands nor is interested in what the government is on about.

But a presidential candidate who promises to take on the mega-wealthy elite of society and attack the rampant corruption that ensures a share of that wealth is kept well away from the outstretched hands of the bulk of the population is an attractive product.

Unlike his predecessors, Duterte does not belong to the elite class and his foul mouthed gutter talk that people can understand, together with promises of direct action is attractive to voters in a way the political niceties of inaction are not.

At his swearing in, he proved that with the help of a teleprompter he can put four words together without uttering an expletive and that he can present himself as a much milder version of the street demagogue who addressed the crowds on the previous day in the plaza in Davao City.

“Erosion of faith and trust in government—that is the real problem that confronts us. Resulting therefrom, I see the erosion of the people’s trust in our country’s leaders; the erosion of faith in our judicial system; the erosion of confidence in the capacity of our public servants to make people’s lives better, safer and healthier,” he said in his inaugural speech as president.

He reassured the people they will be listened to and that a reawakening of national unity will be a priority.

But who he will listen to is unclear. He has already told the media that their comments will not be welcomed and hinted during his inaugural speech that criticisms from any quarter will be treated with the same deaf ear.

“You mind your work and I will mind mine,” he said, adding that care and real change would be the hallmark of his administration.

However, quoting Abraham Lincoln he promised that he will not incite class warfare.

He has lashed out at the bishops, who have been circumspect in their comments, but his disdain for the episcopacy also masks his respect for and friendship with priests and sisters working at the grassroots.

How he will attack corruption in the judiciary and the police remains unclear. He has promised to put the bodies of the drug addicted and their suppliers in Manila Bay and, according to reports, this process has already begun, with the dead listed as resisting arrest, so the police have been the extrajudicial executioners.

His threat has been controversial, but his supporters say that he does not mean what he says, making him difficult to predict and leaving the way open for a presidency of surprises.

While some may not take his threats seriously, many small time drug dealers are more discerning, as significant numbers have taken advantage of an amnesty and surrendered their tools of trade to the police.

While he attributes his own addiction to extrajudicial execution to his frustration over attempting to prosecute big time drug dealers in court before corrupt judges, his Davao Death Squads have never targeted any drug barons, big time criminal or even one corrupt judge—sticking with petty thieves and couriers.

He described joint vetting of government departments of national projects as redundant, calling for single department authorisation—which strengthens his own control.

Despite the intrigue and vagaries of his campaign, the Church sees Duterte as a window of hope, citing his promise to do something realistic about land reform, as massive land holdings have always been the biggest block to distribution of wealth in the country, as a sign of hope.

And although they have not rated a mention as yet, Father Edwin Gariguez sees hope that migrant workers may be recognised for their contribution to the welfare of the Philippine nation and their rights protected.

But what began as a private party in Malacañang in the presence of the who’s who of Manila, may continue to be a private party without reference to the checks and balances the media and street demonstrations can provide, as the new man at the top has promised to be who he wants to be without scrutiny or objection.

The bishops have been guarded in their comments on Duterte, only at the last minute encouraging people to support his administration.

Nevertheless, they did not drop their guard altogether, adding the rider, as long as he stays within the parameters of the law.

However, it may be a short honeymoon, as the glitter of the oath of office had not even worn off before the Mouth from the South was back to his old self renewing his determination to pursue a path of extrajudicial murder.

He declared open season on drug users, saying, “These sons of whores are destroying our children. I warn you, don’t go into that, even if you are a policeman, because I really will kill you.”

Even his supporters who don’t seem to know what he means should be able to get that one straight.

The president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, kept his cool, saying that the Church will keep a watchful eye on the new man at the top.

He also expressed hope that he will not regard the Church as an enemy, as he believes that he needs its support.

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