Duterte will be coming to the podium to address a joint session of Philippine Congress riding on the crest of high approval ratings after one year of service. As such, he possesses the immense political capital that is required to push through an agenda that, as has been evident, is unpopular not with the ordinary Filipino but with an entrenched cadre of oligarchs with vast vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Indeed, if one will examine a cross-section of the community of anti-Duterte activists and shills, one will find not mere pedestrian observers but personalities associated with the interests of big corporations and traditional political clans.
Big Corporate mainstream media, for one, had, since the 2016 campaign, served as a sounding board for propaganda and “journalism” biased towards the Aquino-Cojuangco clan and their interests in those elections. The biggest brand names in that industy, ABS-CBN and the Inquirer group owe that clan big time after being granted a virtual monopoly over mass communication capability and “thought leadership” across the nation at the height of Aquino-Cojuangco rule. Together with relative newcomer Rappler.com which bubbled up out of nowhere to lead the media charge in demonising the late former Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012, the media establishment had been instrumental in the propagation of the unique brand of “victim politics” (a.k.a. “Yellowtard” discourse) of the Aquinos and Cojuangcos.
In the entertainment industy, elder entertainers such as Jim Paredes and Leah Navarro, together with Kris “Queen of Philippine Media” Aquino, served as pillars of former President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III’s “showbiz government”. They used their popularity to blanket the national “debate” with meaningless appeal-to-emotion slogans to hook in the ignoramous rather than add intelligence to the discourse. The irony that continues to fly above the heads of these “influencers” and the Filipino showbiz addicts who follow them that, today, scream bloody “fake news” whenever no-substance messages cross their timelines, is that they were instrumental in propping up for three decades the far darker blanket of fake ideology that is the now-discredited “Yellow brand” worshipped by the Yellowtards.
Finally, there is the Roman Catholic Church, the self-appointed official anointer of the “victors” of the 1986 “people power revolution”. The Catholic Church won symbolic spoils in that “revolution” as evident in the big statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that tops the “EDSA Shrine” built at the intersection of EDSA and Ortigas Avenue, the epicentre of this “revolution” of yore. The presumptuousness with which the Church continues to wear that quaint revolutionary crown is still evident today. Just recently, the Catholic Church exploited its own lucrative private channel for disseminating dubious “news” — the Sunday masses where its minions read out “pastoral letters” to their gawking congregation — to issue a list of “fake news” Internet sites. This is reminiscent of the days when the Church routinely banned “heretical” reading material and launched “holy wars” to silence infidels. Thus it is not surprising that even in 21st Century Philippines, medieval thinking dominates — because one of its society’s key institutions of thought leadership remains the same medieval organisation in essence and mode of operation.
Stepping back from all this to take stock from a higher vantage point, we can see what the Duterte government is up against — a formidable tree of institutions, capital, and mindsets whose trunk is deeply-rooted in Imperial Manila and whose branches spread across the entire Philippine archipelago to blanket it under a shadow of ignorance and religious zealotry. Indeed, the fact that Duterte remains a popular leader despite being the anti-thesis of the “liberal” ideals of the Philippine oligarchy and despite a bumbling Malacanang communication team is a remarkable feat of political navigation.
The challenge then is for Duterte to sustain the momentum he had gathered up over the first 12 months of his presidency.
Duterte’s execution of his most controversial campaign promises — his War on Drugs and his wrenching change-of-course in the Philippines’ foreign policy — is in full swing. In the pipeline are his ambitious infrastructure development programmes and the mobilisation of the troops for his next battle front, his much-vaunted “war on corruption”. All of these make sense — to Filipinos who are not blinkered by Imperial Manila politics, that is. For, the fact remains, Mindanao and the southern Visayas have long been recipients of the short ends of sticks extended as token gestures by Manila’s boy’s club of traditional politicians since time immemorial. This is likely the reason why the directions Duterte’s administration had taken “baffle” traditional “thought leaders” — because they are all Imperial Manila’s children and minions.
Thus, it is important that Duterte ensure that his second SONA address the key threats to this momentum as spelt out above. So far his administration has demonstrated that it has the backing of both “co-equal” branches of government in the way the Supreme Court and Congress both collectively upheld his declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao. As such, the non-controversial or even no-brainer aspects of his challenges — infrastructure, anti-drugs and crime, and anti-corruption — that require multi-partisan support show much promise for gaining traction.
However, much needs to be done to secure the still-fragile credibility of his government and win over its critics. One area that sticks out like a sore thumb and has the potential of unravelling support for his government is his predisposition to granting juicy government posts and junkets to “die hard” supporters. The recruitment of key bloggers with vast followings into Malacanang, in particular, contributes to the growing power vacuum within the small community of independent social media influencers aligned to his administration. Influencers seen to be directly under the payroll of a government or business interest begin to lose semblance of independence, much the same way as Rappler and its amazon leadership had lost profile as independent “news” sources after being seen to be in bed with various corporate interests in the past.
At the moment, much of the communication and persuasion machinery of the Duterte administration rests on the strength of its “independent” social media communities. Indeed, these “independents” remain far more credible than the actual communications arm of Malacanang itself which, under the leadership of Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, has suffered one damaging gaffe after another over the last 12 months. But with the erosion of this independent community thanks to its key members accepting lucrative government posts, the risk of the social media war being lost by Duterte is becoming more real by the day.
Another exacerbation of the increasingly disturbing degeneration to padrino politics in the Duterte government also came to light in the reinstatement of Police Superintendent Marvin Marcos along with his entire team in the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) of the Philippine National Police (PNP). This despite Marcos and his team being implicated in the November 2016 killing of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. Although supposedly cleared of the “administrative” aspect of the case, Marcos still faces homicide charges filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ).
To continue to be seen to be the dark horse galloping out from the horizon to rescue Filipinos from the fatal grip of the status quo (an image which won him the 2016 elections), Duterte needs to position his administration in a way that it is seen as one bucking the all-too-familiar trend of succumbing to typical Philippine-style politics — specifically the style of Imperial Manila politics.
Duterte needs to step back and turn his government into a true meritocracy. The Executive Branch, after all, remains a highly-political outfit. As such Duterte needs to continue working at securing his so far strong mandate with a supporter base dominated by people hanging on to the promise of change, specifically the destruction of the status quo. Hopefully what he says in his second — and very crucial — SONA will reassure Filipinos that way.