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Philippines' Duterte has no concept of accountability

Contradictions between his campaign pledges and presidential actions heighten

Philippines' Duterte has no concept of accountability

Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte looks on during a courtesy call with ASEAN economic ministers in Manila on Sept. 6. (Photo by Mark R. Cristino/AFP)

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila
Philippines

October 20, 2017

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The Philippines' middle class may give President Rodrigo Duterte a pass on human rights violations, but scandals linking a son to drug lords, allegations of hidden wealth, and secrecy on required reports of assets and liabilities for government officials, fuel opposition based on anti-corruption issues.

Duterte campaigned for the presidency in 2016 on a strong anti-crime and anti-corruption platform. He won 16 million votes by promising to crack down on the theft of state resources.

He launched his presidency by attacking political enemies with unvetted "intelligence reports," now used to wrest local governments power over a police force accused of summarily executing thousands of Filipinos.

Duterte signed a Freedom of Information executive order soon after assuming office. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) reports, however, that his government has turned increasingly opaque amid a series of scandals.

The media watchdog said the government, responding to requests for Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), an annual requirement for government officials, blacked out critical information, including acquisition costs or amounts of personal properties, locations of real properties and acquisition costs of real properties as well.

Duterte's SALN had only one item redacted - his address, which the entire country knows.

The president faces a probe by the Ombudsman, the state's anti-corruption body, on undisclosed wealth. Opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes, who originally raised the charge, says that Duterte failed to disclose US$47 million worth of cash and assets.

The PCIJ database shows Duterte reporting only US$29,679 "cash on hand/in bank" in his last SALN before the polls.

Duterte campaigned as a man from a poor family. He has since admitted having wealth, ascribing this to inheritance. Yet he cannot explain the non-disclosure of this supposedly legitimate bonanza. His critics claim most of the undisclosed cash came in regularly for years, apportioned to members of his family, from a businessman friend involved in various infrastructure projects in Davao city, the clan's political turf.

Part of the growing opposition stems from favors Duterte showers on the family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Duterte allowed Marcos' burial in the national heroes' cemetery. Government and Marcos lawyers are now in talks to settle cases of corruption and ill-gotten wealth in return for the return of what is quaintly described as gold "discovered" by the dictator's heirs.

As the contradictions between his campaign pledges and presidential actions heighten, there is growing concern that Duterte's strikes against crime and corruption may mask attempts to consolidate power for kin and friends.

The president links every issue, from festering unrest over self-determination in the southern island of Mindanao to legal challenges against his drug war, to the growing power of narcotics cartels.

Yet a legislative investigation exposed his son, Paolo, vice mayor of their home city of Davao, as a long-time friend of suspected drug lords.

Customs officials appointed by the Duterte administration resigned amid charges of facilitating a US$128 million drug haul from China. None of the public and private individuals named in a Senate probe have been jailed.

The president hauled in a businessman from the central Philippines island of Cebu early in his term for involvement in the illegal drug trade. Several other suspected drug lords in the same central region have been gunned down and summarily executed – with Duterte overturning administrative sanctions on involved police officers. But the Cebu businessman, a good friend of a campaign contributor, has been treated with kids' gloves and remains free.

Soon after he became president, Duterte attacked a powerful digital gaming firm for operating on a lapsed license. The owner, known as a crony of Marcos, was forced to sell his interests. The buyer: the husband of Marcos' daughter.

He also went after a cigarette firm for under-declaring taxes and even outright smuggling. His government wrangled a deal for the unpaid taxes and left the issue of smuggling hanging. The cigarette firm's lawyer – his son-in-law.

Instead being transparent about the sources of his family's wealth, Duterte attacked Senator Trillanes for hidden bank accounts. He now admits having fabricated the account numbers.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales and Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno now face possible impeachment; Duterte vows to snub any probe into his wealth.

He killed the old Presidential Commission on Good Government, which tracked down the Marcos wealth and is creating a replacement. His allies want the customs bureau replaced by three different agencies.

But a president who does not understand the concept of accountability, except when it involves his enemies, will not clean up government even with a hundred new bodies.

Duterte promised change. What Filipinos have witnessed in his first year of office is full-scale return of the discredited old ways. 

Cronyism, the apportioning of the country's wealth to just a favored few friends of leaders, is back with a vengeance as Duterte's tyrannical tendencies grow.

Philippine democracy is flawed; there's no denying that fact. Under Duterte, expect the snuffing out of the lights that still flicker.

Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and commentator based in Manila.

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