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Rodrigo Duterte: The Double-Edged Sword

30/08/2016 11:42 | Updated 30 August 2016

Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte has not been without his critics. His rhetoric against crime and corruption served as the pinnacle of his campaign. However, striking a balance in his policies is a task the president is yet to tackle. This has been evident between his policies relating to public order and the economy.

The drug war stands out as the biggest campaign of his administration. As the former mayor of Davao City, Duterte claims to have cleaned the streets of his hometown through a series of summary executions, in which over a thousand people have been reported missing. Philippine police chief Ronald Dela Rosa announced last Monday that, so far, 712 drug traffickers have been killed in operations since the president's inauguration in June. More recently, the president stepped up his crusade against alleged narco-officials in a nationwide name-and-shame campaign which aims to combat the corrupt drug networks within the government. Senator Leila de Lima, a former human rights secretary and a critic of Duterte, has been the latest to be put under the spotlight. His justification?

"I have seen how illegal drugs destroyed individuals and ruined family relationships", tells Duterte in his inaugural speech last June, "Look at it from that perspective and tell me that I am wrong."

"His campaign against crime was the hallmark of his performance as mayor," says Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism, "Our research is suggesting that this is a drug war copied from the Davao template." Monitoring intel closely, Mangahas questions the estimates being reported by the police but also the cases that are being filed: "The difficulty is that we are getting all this information from a single source - the police." Indeed, what makes analysing the drug war worrisome is how the lack of due process is able to skew the numbers. After all, it was Duterte who openly admitted that if human rights meant drug pushers are able to destroy the country, then they should be forgotten.

"We are told by lawyers that there are supposed to be standard crime scene operatives in every case of violent death", said Mangahas, "If you go by the established protocols of the police, you will not see any of these investigations coming fully as the protocols of the drug war".

There is much to say about this Nixon-style war on drugs. But what about Dutertenomics? Indeed, much of the discourse has been overshadowed by the slew of state-sponsored killings. By focusing too hard on the reactions coming from the drug war, it can be difficult to realise the counter-narratives surrounding other policy areas.

"Coming from his background, a lot of the focus has been on crime," says Edward Lee, Head of ASEAN Economic Research for Standard Chartered, "However these social issues are a part of an ecosystem geared towards growth and investment."

Duterte's stubborn focus on crime initially divested the interests of business leaders. However, the tables turned after the announcement of his 10-point economic agenda, which received high praise from the business community. Local companies are beginning to warm up for rural investment as Duterte promises to lower corporate taxes. His pledge to increase infrastructure up to 7% of GDP and to reduce foreign ownership onshore shows his commitment to improve job opportunities for Filipinos. This year's second fiscal quarter results were better than what economists had predicted - a 7 percent increase in GDP versus the 6.6 percent forecasts. With consumer spending up by 7.3 percent, services - the largest industry in the Philippines - expanded by 8.4 percent.

"The Philippines has the fastest growing economy in the ASEAN-6," Lee forecasts, "Demographics are favourable and in terms of the economy itself, it is doing extremely strong".

The contrasts between these policy areas are evident. However, if the two sides of the same blade are sharp, then the "double-edged sword" cuts both ways. With the ability to protect, it has the same effect to harm. This personifies Duterte's ability to both help the Philippines yet be the demise of it. Drug abuse was an issue which resonated with many communities. Poverty is often seen as the root to the country's problems. Duterte, considered by some as a "political outsider", brings hope to the country's poorer factions now bedridden by oligarchic politics. This is where the president's potential lies: his focus on increasing business competitiveness does well for the growing middle class - a determinant of healthy economic development. A middle class could also close the country's inequality gap as more voters are able to participate intelligently in political life. Likewise, tax reforms can help the poor gain more disposable income, thus spurring consumer spending. Having inherited a growing economy from his predecessor, Duterte's economic agenda provides a promising platform for policy continuity.

However, his emphasis on the drug war has many repercussions. Having only completed less than 100 days in office, time is yet to tell whether Duterte will be able to keep up the momentum of his so-far acclaimed economic plan. While he uses this to boost his agenda, Duterte must also implement his key initiatives during the first half of his term before he risks losing political clout. Indeed, his free hand over the military force enables him to make quick changes easily, but at what cost? In the last three months, the killings have, in many ways, diminished political capital at home and abroad. Whether business leaders will think twice about the president will become more evident as Duterte tightens his grip on the war against drugs.

Today's concerns are justifiable. On October 8, Duterte would have completed his first 100 days in office. With instabilities forming left and right, what these last few days have to show would be something to watch out for.

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