Rodrigo Duterte: How the Philippines’ new President plans to solve decades worth of problems

A close-up image of Rodrigo Duterte speaking.

With the Philippines’ territorial victory over China under his belt, President Rodrigo Duterte is now confronting even bigger challenges at home.

The President wanted to signal a change right from the start, with his inauguration a pared-back affair eschewing canap├ęs and champagne.

He also limited the audience to key officials, minus their partners, and the diplomatic corps, and was ambivalent about the ceremony being held at the opulent Malacanang Palace.

A number of Catholic bishops, usually on the receiving end of his barbs, praised the “simplicity” as appropriate symbolism in a nation mired in endemic poverty.

While Mr Duterte’s fight against drugs is grabbing headlines, it is only one of a string of policy priorities focusing on domestic issues such as transport, decentralisation and ending the insurgencies that have wracked his country for decades.

President Duterte posterPHOTO: A Duterte election poster hangs above a shop in a neighbourhood of Manila. (Ben Bohane)

He has included three leftists in his cabinet and appointed a green crusader, Gina Lopez, to be Environment Secretary, despite concerns from the mining industry.

He is very popular, verging on being a cult figure to his legion of supporters who are tired of a ruling class which has historically delivered little progress for the poor.

The President’s simple lifestyle and potty mouth have endeared him to many who feel he connects with ordinary Filipinos.

They look past his swearing and womanising to see an action man taking on the elites. The fact he has admitted to killing criminals himself only seems to endear him further, and he has declared that he needs six months to end corruption across the country.

The former lawyer was a long-serving mayor on the troubled southern island of Mindanao and has been linked to death squads there which executed petty criminals and drug dealers.

To do: Solve gridlock, ensure government transparency

During his election campaign he was often labelled a Trump-like character by foreign media for his populist appeal.

But that is where it ends.

While Donald Trump is a wealthy, right-wing demagogue dividing Americans, President Duterte is a grassroots, left-wing populist who says he wants to lift up the poor and unite his country.

Filipinos have heard that rhetoric before and many remain sceptical, while others are deeply concerned by his methods.

His first action as President was to request emergency powers to deal with the capital’s gridlock.

Sticker of President DutertePHOTO: An election sticker supporting Duterte on the fishing boat used by Filipino activists who recently resupplied marines in the South China Sea. (Ben Bohane)

New laws will enable him to address the worsening traffic, especially in central Manila, develop a modern integrated railway system, and improve air transport and infrastructure.

Despite his hostility to the media, Mr Duterte has surprised some by announcing he will push quickly for a Freedom of Information bill to ensure Government transparency.

The bill was ready but never implemented by the previous Aquino administration.

He has also signalled an opening of the communications sector to foreign investment, potentially giving new life to a push by Telstra for a national broadband network, shelved by the previous government.

He is the first president from Mindanao and has promised to transform the relationship between the capital and its provinces. He wants a more federal system of government and a constitutional convention.

Duterte’s personal links give him a shot to end conflict

Another high priority is ending the war with Islamic guerilla groups on Mindanao and the communists right across the country.

He has granted safe conduct to the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), Jose Sison, allowing him to return from exile in Europe, as well as the leaders of the CPP’s military wing, for peace talks.

Duterte shocks with trash talk

Rodrigo Duterte hypnotised his fans and outraged critics throughout an explosive election campaign.

He has promised an amnesty to all communist fighters if they lay down their arms and agree to an enduring settlement.

“It’s good that we are talking to the CPP. It’s going well and we hope to have an agreement by the end of the year,” Mr Duterte said, during celebrations for the 69th anniversary of the Philippines Air Force.

His peace advisor Jesus Dureza has confirmed preliminary talks are also underway with the Moro National Liberation Front, one of two insurgent groups fighting for an independent Mindanao. The other is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The President’s Mindanao heritage and the fact that he knows some of the leaders personally means he may be in the best position of recent leaders to resolve the conflicts that have claimed at least 200,000 lives.

Historically, Mindanao was ruled by its own Islamic Sultanates before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. It is the most culturally diverse of the Philippines archipelago, having been a Hindu-Buddhist Rajahnate, then Islamic and now it is largely Catholic following the Spanish and American colonial eras.

While Mr Duterte is focused primarily on domestic issues, he faces some serious international challenges, not the least of which is the fallout from China over his country’s legal victory in the South China Sea dispute.

His administration made a surprisingly low-key statement following The Hague decision in favour of the Philippines this week and the President has signalled he is open to talks with Beijing.

The Philippines is hopeful of substantial Chinese infrastructure investment in coming years.

Source: ABC news. Date: 15 July, 2016