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Duterte risks losing focus as elections near

By Gillian M. Cortez, Reporter

PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo R. Duterte risks losing focus on the country’s battle against the coronavirus as preparations for next year’s presidential elections get under way, analysts said.

“This administration is going to find it difficult trying to accomplish anything meaningful and substantial in 2021, as it builds up the war chest for the elections,” said Herman Joseph S. Kraft, an associate professor who heads the University of the Philippines (UP) Political Science department.

“There will be a lot of rhetoric on accomplishments — signed contracts and agreements perhaps — but not a lot on actual accomplishments,” he said in a Viber message.

Kingmaker Mr. Duterte must keep his focus on the pandemic or he might lose political capital and hurt the chances of his anointed presidential candidate.

“Dealing with COVID-19 and its impact on different aspects of Philippine society will be a huge part of how his whole administration will be judged,” Maria Ela L. Atienza, a political science professor from UP, said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

“The pandemic has affected many of the plans and promises of the President that remain unfulfilled,” she pointed out.

Mr. Duterte, who became President in 2016 and is barred by law from running for reelection, has a little more than a year in office. 

Among his landmark programs are his Build, Build, Build infrastructure campaign and a push for a shift to a federal form of government as he tries to give provinces outside Manila, the capital, an equal share in state revenue.

While a coronavirus-induced lockdown halted some road projects last year, the private contractors of the Skyway stage project, a segment of the North Luzon Expressway harbor link and the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway did finish the work last year. Several other road projects are expected to finish this year.

As far as federalism is concerned, proposals for “surgical” changes to the 1987 Constitution were pushed aside by the coronavirus crisis, Ms. Atienza said.

“The pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns have exposed areas long neglected but should have been prioritized by the government all along,” she said.

These include the country’s poor public health system, the lack of labor safeguards, inequality, the vulnerabilities of migrant Filipino workers and state neglect of the agriculture sector, Ms. Atienza said.

Social welfare services and security reforms remain weak and government corruption continues, she pointed out.

Crime and illegal drugs remain rampant and Mr. Duterte’s promise of an independent foreign policy and constitutional reforms have yet to really take shape, she added.

Despite all these, the President would probably keep his popularity, Mr. Kraft said.

“The President has displayed a Reaganesque quality of having teflon-like characteristics,” he said.

“None of the scandals have really stuck, and he has personally retained his popularity even as his administration has suffered from clumsy to outrightly incompetent handling of issues,” he added.

Ms. Atienza noted that while Mr. Duterte was unlikely to fulfill all his campaign promises, he should try to institutionalize mechanisms to make his anointed one  succeed.

“He and his administration should negotiate with allies, supporters and other crucial groups if they want some more laws to be passed and projects to be implemented given the limited time,” she said.

Mr. Kraft said Mr. Duterte’s proper handling of the pandemic could become his legacy. But it could also work against him especially if the government fails to contain a new strain of the coronavirus that was first detected in Britain, he added.

“His problem is that science does not allow him to follow through on the politics,” he said. “This seems to be the story of the Duterte administration and this pandemic — they can’t manipulate the discourse to favor their politics,” he added.

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