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Duterte's time runs short to make meaningful change

Filipino leader's State of the Nation Address thin on economic proposals

| Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's fourth State of the Nation Address was his most crucial yet. As he enters the latter half of his presidency, limited by law to a single six-year term, the fiery populist had to lay out the vision for his legacy years.

Duterte spoke before a largely pliant legislature, following his allies' dominant performance in the recent midterm elections, where the opposition was almost completely wiped out.

Enjoying the highest approval rating at this stage by any Filipino president in history, he had every reason to be confident and at ease. Yet he was visibly exasperated with perennial governance challenges, particularly corruption, and was conscious that he is fast running out of time.

Before he enters his lame-duck months, the Filipino president should expend his political capital on the least divisive and most consequential reforms.

Instead of calling for the restoration of the death penalty, appeasement of China and continuation of a scorched-earth drug war, Duterte should instead focus on issues of cross-ideological consensus, namely economic development and protection of the Philippines' territorial integrity.

For the third time, the president was late. Last year, his SONA was almost canceled following a bolt-from-the-blue legislative coup, which disrupted the whole program. This time, however, Duterte avoided the same fate by endorsing his former vice-presidential mate, Congressman Alan Cayetano, as the new speaker of the house.

With the house in order, Duterte delivered his most disciplined, focused and on-script speech to date. Ninety minutes long, his speech was largely devoid of the usual off-the-cuff statements and brazen cusses which animated his earlier public pronouncements.

Crucially, he did not reiterate his earlier calls for constitutional change, which many feared could serve as a pretext for expanding his executive powers as well as term in office.

This is likely because Duterte has correctly recognized the lack of public clamor for constitutional change. His refusal to insist on the issue, however, is noteworthy since his allies have formed supermajority coalitions in both houses of the Congress.

His son, Paolo, is currently deputy speaker of the house, while leaders of both houses of the Congress are close Duterte allies, who have welcomed his illiberal vision, including the death penalty for heinous crimes and drug trafficking.

He did also call for the imposition of new draconian laws, including the restoration of the death penalty for drug crimes. With heavy punishments, Duterte argues, the country can more effectively deal with the drug problem. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that death penalty, which has previously led to fatal mistrials in a deeply flawed judicial system, will be an effective approach.

Moreover, after three years in power, and thousands of suspected extrajudicial killings, including children, the government is yet to catch a single "big fish" drug kingpin.

The most controversial portion of his speech was his insistence that resisting China's intrusion into Philippine waters would risk a suicidal war. He also defended his potentially unconstitutional decision to allow Chinese fishermen to roam in the country's exclusive economic zone.

"War leaves behind widows. War leaves behind orphans," Duterte said, emphasizing the need for a "delicate balancing act" for the purpose of "avoidance of conflict" with China.

There was hardly any applause in response, since surveys show that the vast majority of Filipinos want the government to take a tougher stance on the South China Sea disputes. In the latest Social Weather Stations survey, more than nine out of ten Filipinos said that the government should take back Philippine-claimed islands currently occupied by China.

Sensing growing skepticism on his strategic defeatism, Duterte promised to resist China "in due time." Yet he failed to recognize that the time has already arrived amid Beijing's rapid militarization of the disputes in recent years, which has gone hand in hand with growing harassment of Filipino fishermen.

To the surprise of many, the Filipino leader did not engage in his usual anti-Western tirades. This was especially notable after Iceland's recent call at the United National Human Rights Council for thorough investigation of suspected extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

The Duterte administration has categorically rejected such calls as an infringement on its sovereignty, with the president himself often mocking Iceland, which he said has "too much ice" to be taken seriously.

He even considered cutting off the Philippines' diplomatic relations with the northern European nation because of their vociferous disagreement over human rights. Unlike previous years, however, Duterte held his horses.

Throughout his speech, Duterte repeatedly discussed the need for combating corruption, cutting red tape and improving basic governance. This sat well with majority of Filipinos, who have welcomed the president's call for more efficient bureaucratic reforms in recent years.

The president, however, was defiant in his SONA, vowing, "I will end my term fighting" corruption.

What he should have emphasized above all, however, was the need for rapid infrastructure investment and curbing inflation and unemployment, as well as sustaining robust economic growth, which have been the most urgent concerns for ordinary Filipinos.

In his final years in office, Duterte should focus on marshaling his political capital to implement necessary reforms, including tax reforms and employment-generating industrial policy, to address Filipinos' most basic needs.

Meanwhile, he should disengage from divisive and destructive policies, including the scorched-earth drug war and acquiescence toward China, which could hound his legacy for decades to come.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and forthcoming "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

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