Hit and (a lot of) Miss: President Duterte’s Final SONA


Photo Courtesy of PCOO

PRESIDENT RODRIGO Duterte, as enshrined in the constitution, is obligated to report the accomplishments, lay out plans for the coming year, and suggest immediate legislation to the Congress. 

This particular State of the Nation Address (SONA) was expected by the people to be the president’s swan song which would untie the knots of his marred track record. It appears that the outcome has brewed different reactions. 

The speech, according to Atty. Michael Henry Yusingco of the Ateneo School of Government, painted a narrative that was designed for the president’s followers.

Speaking to an audience of 300 people, mostly his friends and allies, it is not impossible for the president to “feel relaxed enough to speak from the gut,” Yusingco noted. 

Economic turnaround

Pulse Asia’s survey revealed that Filipinos were mostly expecting that the president would cover issues concerning generating jobs, economic recovery, and the pandemic response. 

University of Santo Tomas Business Economics Chairperson Asst. Prof. Eric Pasquin pointed out that the Philippines is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia but it was hampered by the health crisis. 

“[I]ts debilitating effect towards human capital’s health and businesses’ operations has led the economy to a negative 11.5 percent GDP in the third quarter of 2020,” Pasquin said.

Citing the Universal Health Care Law, Build Build Build, Free Tertiary Education, and Rice Tariffication Law, Pasquin deemed these as the highest points of the SONA and as the lasting legacy that would propel the economy beyond the pandemic.

Contrary to Pasquin, Partido Manggagawa Spokesman Wilson Fortaleza expressed his dismay because of the absence of concrete strategy to combat the pandemic and recession in the speech.

“From the point of [view of] workers who have suffered through the failed [Covid-19] response and were betrayed by the promise to end Endo, there was really no high point to the [almost] 3-hour long SONA,” Fortaleza told The Flame.

UST Economics program chairperson Assoc. Prof. Carlos L. Manapat also told The Flame that he was meaning to hear about the issue of “endo” or end of contract among the labor force. 

Fortaleza  together with the Nagkaisa! Labor Coalition calls for the government to heed the call for jobs, social amelioration, vaccines, human rights and sovereignty. He underscored that the focus of the SONA should have been laying out an effective plan to circumvent these issues.

It can be remembered that Duterte promised to put an end to endo in 2016 but vetoed the Security of Tenure bill in 2019, which left the labor force hanging. Contractualization of workers ballooned during the pandemic as businesses are left with no choice but to shut down their operations.

Pandemic response: shots in the dark

Then-Special Adviser to the National Task Force on Covid-19 Dr. Anthony “Tony” Leachon regarded the discussion of the pandemic response as one of the lowest points on the SONA.

“[T]he Covid-19 pandemic response lacks a road map and clear direction on what he will do from this day on up to December 2021 which is the actual timeline for the herd immunity of the National Capital Region,” Leachon told The Flame.

However, he gave a caveat that for the sake of fairness, the performance during the new normal should be assessed separately with the pre-pandemic because it will dilute the achievements of the first 4 years. 

With the threat of the more aggressive Covid-19 Delta Variant, President Duterte may be forced to impose lockdowns if cases will surge.  

Leachon stressed the importance of the travel ban to prevent the entry of  Covid-19 variants and cites the cases of Indonesia and India to show how dangerous this strain is.

He also emphasized that the country lacks a metric of success whether the courses taken incites improvement or not, saying: “The main problem of the government is that they do not have a national scorecard or a dashboard.”

His main equation for economic recovery are the combined efforts of testing, tracing, and vaccination that will lead to herd immunity, which the president missed to manifest in his speech.

“We know these already, his statements on the drug war just like the regular [IATF] meeting. The speeches of this kind that would be remembered for a long time should be memorable,” he highlighted.

Similar to Leachon, Yusingco said that the “most disappointing” part of the speech was the absence of a concrete solution to the pandemic.

“The overall comprehensive roadmap remains unclear,” Yusingco said as the president only talked a little about his plans such as the need to pass the economic reform laws in his priority list and the creation of our version of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Although disappointed with the lack of pandemic response, he refuses to believe the administration lost its battle against Covid-19 and that there is still something that can be done in the next year.

Wars on drugs, counterinsurgencies, and territory

Duterte justified his war on drugs during the SONA as a gesture for the love of his country. “I do not want families [to] break up and become dysfunctional,” he said.

Asst. Prof. Frederick I. Rey of the UST Department of Sociology and Department of Political Science considered that although the intention was genuine, the approaches violate universal values of life and freedom.

“The instrument and the intervention mechanisms that were used, we’re militaristic, that’s only satisfying a portion of the Republic Act 9165, or the dangerous drugs law of 2002,” Rey said

He also emphasized that this only satisfied one of the pillars of the law, the prohibitionist approach. The education and rehabilitation pillars are being left out, making the overall approach unsustainable.

“[The government] failed to create infrastructures that will cater to the needs of those who are willing to be rehabilitated, because we are looking at the reintegration of these people into the society that they once abandoned, [these people are not] completely criminals,” Rey reiterated.

The problem of drugs should be treated as a medical condition and not a crime, he added.

Duterte mentioned the allocated budget for counterinsurgency programs, but Rey also sees that local insurgencies will still persist.   

“I think he will fail in this war because he failed to reorient the psyche of the people that armed struggle is not really an option until now,” he stressed. 

The speech highlighted that asserting the Philippine territories against China would spark war.

Rey, however, emphasized that there is a difference between mere optics and really asserting the independent foreing policy, saying: “It’s a different thing saying we will fight for it, then you actually fight for it.”

Yusingco also disagreed that the Philippines is a weak enemy to the other countries saying that it is a “shame” for any Filipinos to think about the Philippines that way. 

“It is unforgivable for a Filipino leader to use it as a reason for not doing what needs to be done,” Yusingco said. 

To say that we can be at war with China by asserting our rights has “no basis in reality”, he says.

Yusingco exemplified Indonesia and Vietnam as countries defending their [Exclusive Economic Zone] EEZ from Chinese incursions, and none of these countries are at war presently.

The rhetoric of war is used to create fear among the population or by justifying the administration’s action in dealing with Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea. 

Diplomacy, according to Anthony Andrew Divinagracia, political science instructor at the University of Santo Tomas, is still the best way to deal with the dispute. 

“We can assert our sovereign rights in the region without firing a shot. In a full-scale war, there are no victors. Only victims. Neither the Philippines nor China would want to be a victim,” Divinagracia said.

Asst. Prof. Ronald Castillo, also from political science, echoed Divinagracia, saying: [W]e don’t need to go to war, we need competent and reliable diplomats.”

In Duterte’s almost three-hour long speech, he failed to talk more on pressing and vital issues such as education and the P10 000 ayuda for students, ending contractualization for the workforce, and giving concrete pandemic responses, especially with the rise of a new variant. 

To put it in Fortaleza’s words, “walang pag-asa at inspirasyong makakatas sa huling SONA.”F



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