PRESIDENT Duterte does not always play by the same rules for similar situations, rendering many of his statements and actions puzzling to those who try to guess his game plan.
His inconsistency may be deliberate like that of a boxer feinting to catch the opponent off guard. Or it could be the result of his having no firmly held principles guiding him. Or is it because he now has a hard time remembering things?
As we enter a new year, again brimming with optimism, we hope it is just the first possibility – that his inconsistency is part of his style of throwing ruses, of testing ideas on the public, to confuse his foes and gain an opening to land the next blow.
We dread the probability that his inconsistency springs from his lack of principled moorings (for a president leading a nation of 105+ million?) or his inability to keep track of what he has said and done in his 20-year-plus political life.
Duterte broke ground when, upon becoming president in 2016, he announced his separation from the Philippines’ long-time allies in the West (generally meaning the United States and its Caucasian coterie) to chart an “independent” foreign policy.
The inconsistency is that his new orientation, announced with fanfare in a foreign capital, hardly looks as independent as advertised but dangerously tilted to the left – toward communist China.
(He also muttered something about his dream of forming a Beijing-Moscow-Manila axis, which was a laughable unbalanced configuration that Malacañang must now be trying hard to forget and erase from the public mind.)
His pivot to Beijing, we understand, was a result of his study of diplomacy, geopolitics and all those electives in college that has taught him the pernicious effects of being too close to the US, which in his mind continued to influence Philippine policy for neo-colonialist ends.
His rough brushes with US officials, including the then American ambassador in Manila who had to be pulled out, helped feed a resentment that has warped his attitude. Only the election of Republican President Trump prevented his total slide to the cliff on the left.
It is inconsistent for Duterte and his minions to denounce US interference in domestic affairs (e.g. the pressure to free or speed up the trial of Sen. Leila de Lima), while playing mute and blind to the aggressive Chinese intrusion into the country’s maritime areas.
His spokesman said if the US bars Filipino officials linked to De Lima’s detention, American visitors will be required, tit for that, to first secure Philippine visas. When asked about Fil-Ams, he said they were exempted. What if they have been naturalized and hold only US passports?
• Why the love affair with China?
WE TRY to understand Duterte’s cozying up to Beijing as born out of a desire to secure massive Chinese aid, loans and investments to prop up his ambitious buildup program. But we continue to be bothered by the country’s being led to what looks like a debt trap.
As Duterte’s contracts with China also contain “onerous” provisions (the same adjective he uses in denouncing water concessions approved by prior administrations), do they also face possible revocation now that he has put in question the sanctity of contracts in these parts?
Some of his contracts have in effect hocked to China valuable and strategic patrimonial assets, a tricky trail leading to a trap. They also require arbitration, in case of disputes, before a tribunal in Beijing controlled by a Chinese majority.
In the case of the water distribution contracts that are being denounced by Duterte, neither the government nor the private concessionaires are represented in the arbitration courts in Singapore that had ruled on the disputes. Yet he questions their fairness after the fact.
We wonder if Duterte’s inconsistency on the matter has something to do with his unabashed pushing for the possible takeover of the waterworks and sewerage system in Metro Manila by a billionaire campaign donor who owns a water-processing facility.
On the franchise of broadcast giant ABS-CBN, Duterte earlier feigned a hands-off attitude on its renewal. That was correct PR, because the process starts with the Congress with the final paperwork being sent to the President for his approval/veto.
By his statements lately, however, it is clear that Duterte has prejudged the case. He not only announced that the Lopez family controlling ABS-CBN cannot expect a franchise renewal but must get ready to sell it.
Why does he not sue them if there were violations or crimes committed as he has alleged instead of going after the Lopezes with presidential vengeance?
Duterte sounded like he has a ready buyer of ABS-CBN, which would not be surprising as in the case of his threatening to declare the water concession contracts void ab initio and turning over operations, first to the military, then to the new contractors.
Like Ferdinand Marcos who declared martial law 45 years before him, Duterte has raised the oligarchy bogey, blaming the rich and powerful for hot issues swirling around media, public utilities and much of the country’ socio-economic problems.
But unlike Marcos who staged in 1972 a coup from the center by citing an alleged conspiracy of the oligarchs on the right and the communists on the left, Duterte has not linked the oligarchs to the communist rebels, who still seem to have been given the benefit of his doubt.
Consistently inconsistent, he has been pushing away the old oligarchs while embracing newly minted oligarchs who have the watermarks of presidential cronies.
Inconsistencies are to be expected in a president who appears, despite his more than two decades in government, largely to be still groping for moral moorings to guide him.
With the phasing in of a new year, we earnestly hope President Duterte will find the True North before he loses his way.