In our globalized world, leaders can no longer escape the scrutiny of their constituents but also the gaze and appraisal of people outside their borders. Our links are no longer local or parochial, but are global due to modern information technologies and through the economic contracts dictated by neoliberalist policies the world has adopted.
I watched this week a primetime, highly-rated Dutch TV talk show where the presenter Eva Jinek ran a generous 60-second clip of President Rodrigo Duterte ordering his police officers to shoot unruly protesters. The video clip, which showed Duterte’s response to a group of indigent protesters who demanded government aid, stunned the TV studio audience. One of Jinek’s invited guests, a seasoned investigative journalist, was tongue-tied when Jinek asked for his opinion on the segment. He managed to utter a reply, saying that the Dutch should be thankful that their own prime minister, Mark Rutte, does not manage the COVID health crisis with such an extreme, iron-fist manner.
Watching that segment highlighted two things in my mind. First, is the challenge of effective communication, and second is that responses to international crisis situations exposes the mettle (or lack of it) of even the most efficient managers. The COVID healthcare crisis has shown that mature and developed countries are could still be vulnerable when faced with a pandemic of this proportion. To immature and developing economies, the challenges are manifold, if not more complex. The dire consequences of the COVID crisis on everyone have yet to unravel in the coming months.
To the Filipino people, Duterte’s response may no longer be a surprise. They have lived through almost four years of his administration that saw the illegal deaths of suspected drug users, and whose families are, up to now, deprived of basic legal remedies and aid. His characteristic cowboy-style and bully talk are also increasingly falling on deaf ears. But even Filipinos who are used to his tough-talking persona are getting fed up by the lack of clear guidance. It’s not too much to ask for a doable executive strategy when livelihood and food sources hang in the balance.
Duterte’s knee-jerk response is reflective of his mayor-from-Davao manner of resolving complex issues. But in 2016, he has entered a platform that is bigger than the world in Toril. It’s a platform that not only encompasses Manila’s viper-pit politics but also the larger world. This larger international community is looking from behind the prisms of their democratic cultures, and it is utterly naive to assume that the Philippines is entitled to a free pass when assessments are done in the family of democratic nations. The Philippines is a co-signatory to international treaties on health, law and other socio-economic commitments which were crafted precisely to mitigate the impact of political, social, environmental and health crises that affect the world.
Duterte’s rant against what he suspected as communist-instigated protest actions thus sound lame and unconvincing since he’s addressing a segment of Philippine society that has long been marginalized and left vulnerable to various political and economic shocks. The timing of his message also followed weeks of executive silence and dilly-dallying, with decisions anchored on political expediency and shortcuts. Instead of clear strategies, he came up with a list of grievances against his political enemies and came on TV with rambling talks that are going elsewhere. While his counterparts in other ASEAN countries are firing point by point policy-based talks with expert statistics on hand, he emerges from his corner surrounded by the usual coterie of sycophant advisers, relying on threats of military arrests and garbled executive orders.
The shallowness of any administration’s strategy will be severely tested by a pandemic that is still unfolding. The extreme responses will betray either authoritarian hold, illogical belief or a fanatical mindset such as those shown by leaders in Hungary, Turkestan and Kenya. International humanitarian aid and their backers monitor these responses. That aid, being limited, is channeled to nations that are vulnerable and those who need it the most, and to those who exemplified workable and sound solutions. Like water this international aid is not unlimited or renewable, but are finite and subject to accountability.
Duterte and his managers have not shown receptiveness to local or national accountability. International accountability is anathema to him and he bristles with nationalistic pride when confronted with his missteps. His regime shows an unwillingness to be made accountable, and even the most uncritical of his critics are met with the muzzle of a gun.
The Filipino do not deserve threats and intimidation fired from the holstered hip, and reasonable people will not fall in line when their government only comes up with the same old formulas replete with holes and rancor. True discipline, which his supporters are claiming is his ultimate goal, cannot be achieved when the very government that leads cannot fulfill its own mandate.
Joel Vega is the author of ‘Drift,’ a poetry collection that won the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry in English. He lives in Arnhem, The Netherlands, where he works as publications editor.