POSTSCRIPT / November 12, 2019 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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How do you solve a problem like Leni?

PRESIDENT Duterte has a big problem – newly minted anti-drug czar Leni Robredo — and the irony is that he himself created it.

On Oct. 31, apparently in a moment of pique, the President designated Vice President Robredo, who has been criticizing his brutal war on drugs, co-chair of the Inter-agency Committee on Anti-illegal Drugs (ICAD).

Before Duterte could change his mind, Robredo accepted the assignment Nov. 6 and gained access and control over one of the most controversial preoccupations of the President.

Judging from their reactions, Duterte and his coterie did not expect her to accept the position which many of her own advisers and sympathizers saw as a trap. But the plucky Robredo took the post.

Now that could become a major problem for Duterte with Robredo moving quickly to show results in the remaining two years-plus of the administration:

1. She immediately took over the ICAD, notwithstanding the fact that there is already a chair in the person of PDEA Director-General Aaron Aquino who had prejudged her as incapable of leading the war on drugs.

2. She called a command conference Friday and all heads of the agencies comprising ICAD attended, apparently recognizing her authority and granting her good faith in accepting the difficult job. Everybody had a chance to listen to one another.

3. Robredo shared her thoughts on the drug menace – to set the direction — stressing that more than a police problem it was a social and public health concern requiring a holistic approach.

4. Despite Duterte’s known dislike for United Nations agencies looking into the human rights aspects of his anti-narcotics campaign, Robredo said she would invite them in. She added that she would also confer with United States officials who had conveyed their readiness to help.

While she was taking these steps, no comment was heard directly from the President. But presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Duterte was for helping Robredo do her job.

Our guess is that Duterte and his advisers, caught by surprise by Robredo’s springing into action quickly and decisively, have decided to watch as she takes her first steps.

Maybe it was mere coincidence that the President decided to rest for three days starting today. Btw, noting his looking haggard, we suggested here last Tuesday that he take a rest, or even go on vacation.

Until now, the two top officials have not even had the time to talk about her job. The President being the appointing power can withdraw her designation anytime she crosses some invisible red lines.

 Robredo could also help Duterte

AT THIS point, Robredo appears to be holding the high ground, receiving what looks like support from an expectant public, and even from a number of senators who are known to be Duterte loyalists.

Everybody is waiting to see how the Vice President would tweak or redirect a bloody anti-narcotics campaign that has taken 5,000 to 27,000 lives (depending who is counting the bodies).

With Robredo’s initial momentum boosting her image as the anti-drug czar (a tag that makes her loom larger in the public eye) how would a tired Duterte handle her if she grows into a stumbling block on the way to the 2022 elections?

While Robredo is not likely to solve the problem that Duterte has failed to crack by brutal means the past three years, she might be able to sell her alternative approach that is humane, respectful of human lives and has regard for due process.

Every little success in her managing of the campaign could help project her as a viable candidate for president in 2022, posing a threat to whoever Duterte wants to succeed him — assuming he himself has no Plan B for staying beyond 2022.

Some of the possibilities that the fluid situation could lead to:

Persons or groups adversely affected by Robredo’s performance could sabotage her work as anti-drug czar. This could backfire, however, if not expertly and neatly handled, especially now that the people are watching.

One dire extreme possibility is Robredo’s being physically harmed with the attack being blamed on drug lords. She is aware of this possibility, and she said that would not deter her.

On the other hand, as far as Duterte’s commitments to his allies and benefactors would allow it, he could support Robredo in her anti-drug drive as she eases his burden. Her success in the drug war could be packaged as also his.

Duterte once said Robredo’s leading the war would give her a chance to see the situation on the ground and begin to understand his tough approach. The reverse could also happen, that he would end up seeing things the way she sees them.

With Robredo as an anti-drug czar respectful of human rights, she might be able to convince foreign observers, such as those in the UN, to have a more open mind on the war on drugs. That would be a welcome development for Duterte.

It is even entirely possible that from being a problem as we have started to say, Robredo could become Duterte’s solution to some of his negative perception troubles.

 On Ressa’s interview on ‘60 Minutes’

WE STOPPED writing our Postscript last night to watch on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker interview Maria Ressa, the moving spirit of Rappler. Pressed by deadline, we switched off the TV when the show shifted to former first lady Imelda Marcos.

Ressa talked of the risks journalists face in reporting on the Duterte regime. Being familiar with that, we did not hear anything new. We think reactions will fall along partisan lines, with critics of Duterte agreeing with Ressa, and his followers dismissing her statements.

Although the interview may not grab most Filipinos with startling revelations, it will add to the growing critical reporting on Duterte at home and abroad.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 12, 2019)

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