Can Duterte succeed?: Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his state of the nation address at Congress in Manila on July 24, 2017.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his state of the nation address at Congress in Manila on July 24, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - For someone who has been constantly criticised for his foul language, long drawn talks (many cannot be called speeches), repetitiveness, and unpredictability, President Rodrigo Duterte communicates.

In fact, he communicates very well. He is able to get the public to listen, he is able to get his messages across and he is able to elicit responses - positive or critical.

So far, the overall impact of who he is, what he says and especially what he does, despite great controversy, remains not just favourable but remarkably very at that.

An 80 per cent trust and approval level amazes.

I had carried great reservations about what President Duterte wanted to do all along, not that he was wrong in wanting to do so, but because he picked the most contentious concerns that had been plaguing both politics and society in general for so long.

Imagine trying to resolve the Muslim conflict in Mindanao. Didn't this start during the Spanish times? Who remembers that far back?

Imagine trying to establish peace with the local communists after a continuing violent relationship of 50 years that has claimed thousands of lives?

Imagine trying to adjust our global relationships with superpowers - and adjusting means less of America and more of China and Russia? Can the ping-pong ball influence the ping-pong players before it is degraded enough to be unusable?

What about poverty? What about this curse that has caused misery to tens of millions for decades?

Mr Duterte wants to be the champion of the poor and he is promising them more than anyone before him has done. Ending just the contractualisation of labour is challenge enough that previous presidents have skirted. And he knows he has to address landlessness, homelessness and hunger as prerequisites to dismantling poverty.

Then he has his political debts to honour as best he can, even if it means being friendly with the Marcoses and the Arroyos while prioritising an anti-corruption drive.

Most worrisome, to him and obviously to the majority of Filipinos, is the illegal drug situation that he is meeting head-on, bloody if it has to be because it is the national threat he is most afraid of.

Mr Duterte is aware that the government mechanism is already seriously compromised, including law enforcement agencies. He must be getting constant headaches wondering how to prevent drug lords from corrupting every branch of government.

Can he succeed? I guess that success will have to be defined in the context of each issue that has festered and eaten away at what should have been a nation's noble soul.

My own experience with what improvements have happened during my lifetime tells me that they happen slowly, like the maturing process of a person. It is already a challenge to rear a child towards being a good and productive human being even though that child has not yet established a set of bad habits.

But Philippine society and Philippine governance are twisted and perverted enough to be an impossible mission in a given six-year period.

Against cancers that have resisted any meaningful cure, I know that there is no effective formula.

If there was any, cancer would be relegated to a serious but mostly curable disease.

Cancer may have been cured in some cases but it had been so individualised - meaning different people respond to almost customised treatment. And most still die from it.

President Duterte has vowed to address all the various cancers that Filipinos and the nation suffer from.

No way he can succeed if success means he can cure all these cancers, not in one term (or two), not in the form of government we have today.

I do not even mean a presidential system or a federal and parliamentary one. I mean the more basic, I mean democracy as we understand and practise it. I mean freedom at the level and variety we are used to - even if it largely fails to correct injustices from an unequal society.

I remember many years ago when our newborn son had to be put in an incubator just hours after his birth. It seemed something was amiss with his respiration and, therefore, had to put in an externally-aided environment.

The doctors explained to us that his lungs were premature by gestation, meaning they had a full nine months to develop but the actual development of the lungs lagged behind his other faculties. That is like freedom and democracy as we have experienced it.

Many other nations earned their freedom and began their democracy from a bloody process, usually breaking free from a colonial master or from a long, drawn-out civil war.

Ours came from a sense of loyalty and obedience to our colonial master - and survival. We did contribute blood and lives to regain our freedom, but it was America that won the war against Japan.

Since 1946, we have been gestating, we have been committing one mistake after another in order to learn our lessons. We are still in that process where messiahs remain our best chance to succeed more than our own capacity to stand on our own two feet.

Thankfully, and I cannot stop saying this often enough, the singular opportunity for work overseas, the decision to leave families here while working abroad, and the awesome talent of Filipinos is almost any endeavour they are assigned to, has been the single most effective pathway out of poverty for tens of millions.

Not government. Not yet anyway.

That is what I have been praying for every time a new president comes to power. That he or she is the messiah. That he or she would break the back of poverty, address all the cancers that keep millions marginalised and hopeless.

Today, it is President Duterte's turn. I have no false hopes for total success. Yet, I know that we have had small successes and we can build on them to establish irreversible momentums.

Most important, though, is our collective wish for a brighter tomorrow. Whatever happens to any messiah, we must not let go of that.