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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Careful what you wish for

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WE GRIPE about how the word “change” seems to have lost its meaning. For many years—across generations, actually—our politicians have sought office promising change. They criticize what came before them and vow to make things better.

The public has always been dazzled by such promises. Alas, we vote those who simply maintain the status quo rather than upset it. As a result, “change” has come to mean nothing. It’s just another empty word now. What change, when there are even more poor and hungry Filipinos, when the same elite families dictate the course of the nation, and when something as basic as one’s daily commute to school or the workplace become even more unbearable.

This is likely why when then-Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte finally decided to run for the presidency and promised his own brand of change, people took note. Duterte was not of the same “type” as the others we have gotten used to: No aristocratic roots, no Ivy League education, no prim-and-proper manners and definitely no smooth, diplomatic speech patterns. 

Instead you have a disruptor: Duterte curses, lashes out at the old order, is not afraid to take on establishments like the almighty Catholic Church. He has no qualms about putting away criminals and could be politically incorrect. Remember the mayor-should-be-first comment about the Australian missionary who was gang raped in his city many years ago? He also has no inhibitions showing off his machismo. He is not apologetic for having multiple partners and not at all shy showing his, ugh, “appreciation” of women. 

Somehow, that worked. Filipinos took note, voting him into office through a good plurality of more than 16 million votes, the highest ever garnered by a president. After winning but before assuming the role of chief executive, Duterte even took on the press, trivializing media killings and branding journalists as generally corrupt and deserving of death. The statements earned him too much flak so that he had to qualify his words just two days after. 

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Nonetheless, at the time of his inauguration, Mr. Duterte enjoyed a 91-percent trust rating, according to the Social Weather Stations. That’s a lot of political capital to be spent.

And now he seems to be spending it, indeed, to push for the things he thinks are worth pushing. 

Foremost among these things is the war on drugs. 

It is either we were so taken up with other things that we never realized how big a problem the drug menace was, or our officials deliberately kept us in the dark about it. From the leanings of this new dispensation, we learn that the biggest problem we face is illegal drugs—not graft and corruption, not poverty, not the lack of infrastructure, most definitely not climate change. 

And what drastic steps the Duterte administration has taken, and to think it has been in office less than two months. More than 150 officials have been named and shamed as having links to the drug trade.  Across the country, hundreds of drug dealers and users have been rounded up. And worse, bodies of alleged drug pushers have turned up, often with tags identifying them as such. Who knows what authority finished them off? Who knows if the charges are even true and if those killed did not just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? 

At the very least, one cannot fault Mr. Duterte for being half-hearted about his campaign. No such affliction as analysis paralysis. If there is a shining example of resolute will, of walking one’s talk, it is he. His impulse also is to lash out at anybody who dared question his methods—he will just backtrack and apologize when he comes to his senses, like what he did with Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. 

And just when we thought we saw the last of the cursing and the stream-of-consciousness press conferences when he finally delivered a concise and sensible inaugural speech, he is back to his old rambling ways. Note his first State of the Nation Address. The cursing even when he is speaking with the seal of the Office of the President. Just recently he used unflattering words referring to the American ambassador. He has also decided he would allow the burial of former President Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani—a divisive and emotional issue that has festered across several administrations.  

Yes, we had hoped for change, but does President Duterte bring too stark a change? 

Some people believe so. Several sectors have said human rights were being violated in the summary killings that Mr. Duterte seems to have inspired. Many have also taken exception to his tough-boy manner of speaking, challenging anybody who does not seem to agree with him. He is also prone to utter words without deliberating on their implications—refreshingly candid and entertaining at times, but most unpresidential and unbecoming of a statesman. 

And yet his supporters tell the rest of us: Would you rather have the do-nothing kind again? 

Some believe that Filipinos have become too unwieldy—“pasaway” in the language­—that we need exactly the kind of whip that Duterte holds to make us act as we should. We are too conscious of our rights and freedoms being violated that we give no thought to what we do with them and how we exercise them. Thus, the change we seem to be experiencing now is exactly the change we need.

Whichever way we think, the fact is that we will be under this administration for the next six years. We have to be decisive—assertive, even—about the things we want changed while being vigilant of the non-negotiables that we hold dear. 


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