By Invitation

Duterte's rainbow Cabinet challenges Manila elite

Despite the bad press he has received for his outbursts, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has amassed a diverse, pro-business Cabinet as he gets down to the business of governing


Since the election of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as the Philippine president in a landslide victory on May 9, the regional and international media have highlighted his outrageous remarks backing the extra-judicial killings of drug dealers, calling Philippine bishops critical of him "sons of whores", alleging that journalists were killed because they were corrupt and joking that he would have wanted to be first in line when an Australian missionary was raped, then murdered.

None of these remarks has dented his domestic support. But they have attracted international attention and provided a one-dimensional view of Mr Duterte.

His main opponents, former interior and local government secretary Mar Roxas, who was supported by outgoing President Benigno Aquino, and Senator Grace Poe conceded defeat even before all votes were counted.

The vice-presidential race was closer. Congresswoman Leni Robredo, with a reputation for fiscal probity and a simple lifestyle, narrowly defeated Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled from 1965 to 1986.

Mr Duterte has indicated that Ms Robredo will not be given any role in the new administration as he had favoured the election of Mr Marcos.

To be sure, Mr Duterte as president will be very different from his Philippine predecessors. But there is a need for a more layered understanding of the man and his policies.



For one thing, he is the first Philippine president who is not from the traditional land-owning elite, which has dominated the critical centres of power in the capital Manila since independence. His base is in Davao City in the traditionally neglected southern Philippines. He has said he will continue to stay in Davao, commuting daily by commercial aircraft, until he is comfortable in Manila. To stress this point, he was in Davao when he was officially proclaimed by a joint session of the Philippine Congress on May 30 as the winner of the election and the next president.

His election signals a shift away from Manila-centred politics and an effort to reach out to hitherto marginalised sectors of Philippine society. His speeches and public comments are in English rather than Tagalog, the lingua franca of Greater Manila, which has been promoted throughout the archipelago as the national language. He has emphasised his links with Mindanao and several of his Cabinet appointments hail from the region.


Mr Duterte also draws support from the Philippine left wing and has close ties with the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) Jose Sison, under whose leadership the CPP waged a Maoist-influenced guerilla insurgency and who has been in exile in the Netherlands since 1987. Mr Duterte has welcomed Mr Sison's plans to return home.

While the armed wing of the CPP, the New People's Army (NPA), is now weakened with a strength of about 4,000 compared with 26,000 at its peak in the 1980s, the Philippine government has been engaged in negotiations with the CPP since 2011 aimed at ending the insurgency. Although these negotiations are currently at an impasse, Mr Duterte is more likely to reach an agreement with the CPP/NPA.

This opening to the left is seen in two of his Cabinet appointments who were nominated by the National Democratic Front, which is allied to the NPA. Ms Judy Taguiwalo, a University of the Philippines professor and women's rights advocate, is the secretary of social welfare and development, while Mr Rafael Mariano is secretary of agrarian reform. Incoming Cabinet secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr, a former NPA rebel and former priest, served as Mr Duterte's campaign manager and has enjoyed close ties with Mr Duterte since the 1990s.


These appointments are balanced by pro-business technocratic appointments to key economic portfolios, including secretary of finance Carlos Dominguez, who served in the Cabinets of presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos and is a close friend of Mr Duterte from Davao City.

Mr Alfonso Cusi, secretary of energy, served Mrs Aquino as head of the Manila International Airport Authority, the Philippines Ports Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority.

The secretary of economic planning, Mr Ernesto Pernia, was lead economist at the Asian Development Bank. Based on Mr Duterte's effective economic management in Davao City, economic policy is likely to follow the growth-oriented policies of Mr Aquino with greater emphasis on decentralisation, poverty alleviation and land reform.

Former president Fidel Ramos, who served from 1992 to 1998, was an early supporter of Mr Duterte and has been influential in pushing pragmatic policy choices. Mr Ramos' influence is positive as his tenure was marked by an economic transformation in the Philippines as well as a significant outreach to the NPA and Muslim rebel movements. Ramos appointees now holding Cabinet posts include secretary of labour Silvestre Bello, a human rights lawyer in Davao and former secretary of justice, as well as peace process adviser Jesus Dureza, who held this post under Mr Ramos.

Because of Mr Duterte's unwillingness to accommodate the preference of the Manila political elite for business as usual, his Cabinet includes more nominees with close personal ties with the President and who hail from Davao and the surrounding Cotabato region. Besides Mr Dominguez and Mr Evasco, other friends or former classmates of the President-elect include secretary of transportation and communications Arthur Tugade, secretary of justice Vitaliano Aguirre, executive secretary Salvador Medialdea and chief of police Ronald Dela Rosa, the former police chief of Davao City.


Mr Duterte's priorities are domestic. Law and order, anti-corruption and crushing the drug problem are at the top of his agenda. He aims to devolve power from the central government to the provinces. By working out of Davao so far, Mr Duterte is symbolically reminding Manila politicians that a political revolution is under way. He intends to shift to a federal-parliamentary system and the Constitution will have to be revised.

However, such a move will face resistance as Filipino politicians will contend that president Marcos used such a switch from a presidential to a parliamentary system to amass power and dominate Philippine politics.

His appointment of Major-General Delfin Lorenzana as the secretary of defence reflects a desire to maintain ties with the United States even as the Philippines moves to restore its relationship with China. Mr Lorenzana has spent most of the past two decades in Washington as defence attache and, after his retirement in 2004, as presidential representative and handling veterans affairs at the embassy from 2004 to 2009 and again since 2013.

Mr Duterte's foreign policy is still unclear. Mr Perfecto Yasay, former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission whose roots are in Davao City, is the new foreign secretary. As Mr Yasay is not linked to the pro-American policies of the outgoing administration, a tilt away from the US towards a more even-handed approach is possible.

Given the strong Chinese reaction to the Philippines submission of its case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration concerning the validity of South China Sea territorial claims based on China's nine-dash lines map, Mr Yasay's first challenge will be the management of the bilateral relationship with China.

So far, mixed signals have been sent by the new administration. During his election campaign, Mr Duterte called for bilateral talks. Post-election, he proposed a multilateral dialogue involving claimant states as well as other states including the US, Japan and Australia. He has also said that he would not surrender the Philippines' right to Chinese- occupied Scarborough Shoal. Mr Yasay has said that relations with China should improve as long as China "adheres to the rule of law, respects our territorial integrity and sovereignty".

With the eclectic rainbow coalition of Cabinet appointees, no clear foreign policy and national security policy outlook can be outlined at this time. Asean is not a focus of Mr Duterte's attention. But he is likely to be persuaded by his advisers to make the usual round of courtesy visits to his Asean counterparts.

Asean leaders at the next Asean Summit in Vientiane in November will have to deal with a disengaged leader unless issues directly concerning the Philippines are on the agenda. One worrying possibility is the revival of the Philippines claim to Sabah, reflecting the influence of Mr Duterte's power base in Mindanao.

Nevertheless, while Mr Duterte's priorities may be domestic, international developments may intrude and shape the priorities of his administration.

Barry Desker is Distinguished Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte's rainbow Cabinet challenges Manila elite'. Print Edition | Subscribe