Duterte's first year is one of recalibration

President Rodrigo Duterte sailed into the presidency on grand promises to end the drug menace in six months and bring the same kind of peace and prosperity he brought to his home city of Davao to the rest of the Philippines.

A year since he took office, has he delivered on his promises?

Not really. Not yet anyway.

Drugs are still being sold on the streets. His efforts to shift to a federal form of government have barely moved. An ambitious infrastructure-building programme remains just on paper. Traffic in metropolitan Manila is still a mess. Peace with communists and Muslim secessionists is still hanging in the air, and terrorism and banditry continue to plague the war-torn southern island of Mindanao.

But he did raise expectations too much, and he is realising that time is not on his side. So, he has had to recalibrate.

Take, for instance, the war on the narcotics trade, his centrepiece issue. He threatened to fill Manila Bay with the bodies of 100,000 drug pushers, as he promised to lick the drug problem in three to six months.

"We will not stop till the last drug lord, last financier, last pusher has surrendered or is put behind bars or below the ground if they so wish," he said in his inaugural State of the Nation Address.

Mr Duterte has since said it will take the rest of his six-year term to deliver on that promise, having realised only after he took office the scale of what he has to deal with: a "narco-state" manipulated by drug syndicates protected by powerful politicians, military generals and policemen.

The verdict on his one-year drug war is split in the middle.

His supporters say that thanks to his campaign, there are a million fewer addicts, some 80,000 drug dealers are behind bars, and drug supply has fallen by 15 per cent. The result has been that the crime rate has dropped, and the streets are safer now.

Critics, on the other hand, contend that his anti-crime drive has led to a human rights "calamity". They say the death toll is far above the 3,000 that police have identified as drug-related killings, suggesting a number closer to 10,000.

They also question whether Mr Duterte's drug war is having any effect at all. They note that the price of crystal meth, the highly addictive drug known locally as "shabu", has, in fact, been falling from a range of 1,300 pesos (S$35.40) to 25,000 pesos per gram at the height of the drug campaign last year, to 1,000 pesos to 15,000 pesos a gram last month. This suggests that supply has been steady, despite the government's brutal crackdown.

MINDANAO PROBLEM

Apart from vowing to end the drug problem, Mr Duterte also promised to rewrite the Constitution to allow a shift to a federal form of government, one where much of the central authority's powers will be devolved to autonomous regions that will have more control over their finances and security.

A year on, though, Congress has yet to agree on how it will go about amending the Constitution.

Federalism is Mr Duterte's solution to the Mindanao problem, after a historic peace deal brokered by the previous Aquino administration with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) unravelled in Congress just before Mr Duterte took office on June 30 last year.

The Aquino peace agreement was supposed to create an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao. Under this deal, secessionist groups led by the 12,000-strong MILF would lay down their arms and participate in politics, so they could carve out a state-level government that, among others, would deal with extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf.

But Congress shot down a draft law that would create this region, following a botched raid on the lair of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir that led to the deaths of dozens of police commandos at the hands of an MILF splinter group in 2015.

Instead of revisiting the Aquino-MILF deal, Mr Duterte opted to push for federalism, but with nothing to back it up except empty talk. That decision may have led to the biggest crisis to hit his government.

Analysts are suggesting that the ongoing bloody war between government troops and Muslim militants with ties to the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the southern city of Marawi would not have happened had he stayed the course and backed the Aquino-drafted "Bangsamoro Basic Law" (BBL).

Deputising MILF fighters would have helped the government contain the spread of radicalism in Mindanao, they argue.

"The delay (in the BBL's approval) lent credence to the Islamist discourse against supporting the peace process, heightened the historical Muslim distrust of the government and put the MILF's credibility at stake," said Ms Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, head of the government peace panel that negotiated with the MILF.

So again, Mr Duterte is making adjustments, and officials say he is now set to back the BBL and get Congress to approve it.

CHINA PIVOT

Mr Duterte's "pivot" to China also remains a work in progress.

Over the past year, he has upended the Philippines' foreign policy to thaw once-icy relations with China. He has set aside a ruling by an international arbitration court on a case filed by Manila striking down Beijing's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, and dismissed China's massive island-building project there as a "non-issue" before his Asean peers.

He has threatened to dismantle decades of security ties between the Philippines and its traditional ally, the United States. In return, he has secured over US$24 billion (S$33 billion) of investment pledges and grants from China.

Some are saying this "pivot" counts for little, considering what Mr Duterte has had to give up to please Beijing, and especially with the conflict in Marawi revealing just how much the Philippines still depends on the US for its internal security.

But as in his drug war and Mindanao policy, he is recalibrating. He has eased back on his tirades against the US, and considers US President Donald Trump a "friend".

As for the "capital flood" expected from China, that should come once his Cabinet men can firm up his 3.6 trillion peso, three-year "Build, Build, Build" programme meant to kick in a "golden age of infrastructure".

LOW-HANGING FRUITS

Mr Duterte's first year in office has not been without some solid achievements. There have been some low-hanging fruits.

He has signed the "Freedom of Information" law that gives media more access to government records, and an executive order that has given more than 50,000 part-time workers regular employment. He has raised individual pensions by 2,000 pesos, and banned public smoking.

He has, for some quarters at least, settled an issue that has divided the Philippines for years: He allowed a hero's burial for the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

The economy, meanwhile, with momentum from previous years of torrid growth, remains on a solid footing, with gross national product expected to expand by 6 per cent to 7 per cent by the year end.

Mr Duterte may not have delivered most of what he promised but he has five years left.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2017, with the headline 'Duterte's first year is one of recalibration'. Print Edition | Subscribe