Pugnacious Duterte may need to temper rhetoric as Presidential era begins

Rodrigo Duterte, a 71-year-old Viagra-enhanced leader nicknamed "The Punisher" for his stint busting crime in Davao City in Southern Philippines takes helm as the country's 16th President on Thursday.

His victory in the Presidential election was a landmark event, a win for an outsider with a penchant for frank talk who rode a wave of popular discontent with the country's political establishment.

Outgoing Philippines President Benigno Aquino (R) and his successor Rodrigo Duterte (center-L) salute during the departure ceremony for Aquino ahead of the swearing-in at Malacanang Palace in Manila on June 30, 2016.
Ted Aljibe | AFP | Getty Images
Outgoing Philippines President Benigno Aquino (R) and his successor Rodrigo Duterte (center-L) salute during the departure ceremony for Aquino ahead of the swearing-in at Malacanang Palace in Manila on June 30, 2016.

Richard Javad Heydarian has been closely following Duterte's work. A teacher of political science and international affairs at De Le Salle, one of the leading private universities in the Philippines, Heydarian is also a widely published author whose commentaries have appeared in the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

His books include ''How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of The Middle East Uprisings''. His latest is ''Asia's New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific''.

Just ahead of Rodrigo Duterte's inauguration as the new president of the Philippines, CNBC's Martin Soong spoke to Heydarian in this email interview.

MS: How would you describe Duterte's cabinet?

RJH: To the delight of many, Duterte's promised to create a more inclusive, competent and gender-sensitive cabinet. He has even suggested that he will follow in the footsteps of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in assembling his presidential cabinet. The composition of his cabinet looks like a balance between experience and representation, more coming from outside "Imperial Manila". But to many it looks like many remnants of the previous Arroyo administration are over-represented.

MS: What do you think Duterte's going to be able to actually achieve in his first 100 days in office?

RJH: Given his promise to eliminate - later downgraded to suppress - crime in 3-6 months, Duterte is under tremendous pressure to show something in his first 100 days in office. He has promised to use the full force of law, and empowerment of law enforcement agencies, to tackle criminality and proliferation of drugs. Since this has been the centerpiece of his campaign, he faces tremendous pressure to deliver something on it. Crime-busting, however, could be a double-edge sword, either defining his legacy or triggering backlash from human rights groups, Catholic Church, and the outgoing administration, who are concerned with Duterte's means of fighting crime.

MS: Now that Duterte's managed to win a legislative super-majority, what will he do with it?

RJH: It seems Duterte has utilized his appointment power to build a coalition. This has helped him to get enough support in the Congress to push for major legislations, beginning with restoration of the death penalty and, potentially, even charter-change for the creation of a parliamentary-federal system.

MS: And what about taming the South, Mindinao ?

RJH: One of the Arroyo-era officials, Jesus Dureza, is an experienced peace negotiator. This signals Duterte's focus on tackling the conflict in Mindanao, both with Muslims and communist rebels. As a Mindanaon himself, with profound understanding of the challenges in the area, Duterte is in a perfect position to achieve what his predecessors couldn't: Peace in Mindanao. Dureza will be a reliable and experienced deputy. Duterte has also offered four cabinet positions, Department of Agrarian Reform, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Labor and Employment, and Department of social welfare and Development, to communists, the leader of which, Jose Maria Sison, was Duterte's former professor at the Lyceum of the Philippines. It is a curious choice, since many of these communists would be sitting next to defense officials, whom they have had a testy historical relations with.

MS: Strange political bedfellows, in his cabinet...

RJH: Duterte seems confident that he can manage this "team of rivals", which has no precedence in Philippine politics. Clearly Duterte is signaling change and continuity, a balanced cabinet that could steer the country towards the next stage of development with the right kind of experience and inclusiveness. He has to continue the good reforms of previous administration while upgrading them by bringing in more rapid infrastructure development, agricultural sector revival, and manufacturing boom. This requires patient and systematic reform and steering, which is why Duterte is relying on seasoned technocrats.

MS: How do you think President Duterte now, has to change, versus candidate Duterte?

RJH: It is important for Duterte to make sure that he tones down his often pugnacious rhetoric, stop making controversial statements that allow his critics to portray him as dictator-in-the-making, and constantly reassure the markets and international partners that he is a stable, reliable leader who can take the Philippines through necessary structural reforms. His cabinet choices seem to have been taken positively by the international investment community. It is important for Duterte to be economized in his utilization of his political capital. Simultaneously pushing for multiple major reforms, including controversial bills like charter-change and death penalty and re-opening relations with China, could exhaust his political capital and empower his opponents. So he should move forward in a steady and reassuring fashion without losing track of the end goals of bringing about meaningful and desirable change.

MS: And what about foreign policy, including his approach to China, and the South China Sea issue?

RJH: In foreign and defense policy, Duterte is expected to adopt an equilateral balancing strategy, similar to the Ramos and Arroyo administrations, reaching out to both China and America without siding with any against the other. Top Arroyo-era officials like Teodoro, who have robust ties with America, will balance out Duterte's image as a leftist. After all, Duterte openly professes his friendship with communists, and has described himself as a "socialist".

MS: So you think he won't be bullied by China. But what about the Philippines' long-standing ties to the U.S.?

RJH: For Duterte, China represents a unique opportunity to develop the Philippines, particularly its creaking infrastructure. He prefers diplomacy and dialogue rather than confrontation and deterrence. If necessary, he is open to joint development schemes in order to overcome intractable sovereignty disputes. In fact, the Chinese ambassador was one of the first dignitaries he met after being declared as the presumptive-president. As for America, which is extremely popular with the security establishment, I doubt he will or can afford to downgrade ties. Philippines needs America more than ever, especially in light of the rise of ISIS-sympathizers in Mindanao. But I think Duterte will put a healthy distance between himself and foreign powers like America. He has often lamented the limits of American commitment to the Philippines and reiterated that he will be strict in giving military access to US soldiers in Philippine bases under the EDCA.

MS: Do you think there's a line that China could cross with the Philippines, after which there's no going back?

RJH: What Duterte should do is to make sure he maintains robust relations with America, while rebuilding ties with China. As the experience of many Asian countries shows, that is doable and even desirable. But if China proceeds with building military facilities in the Scarborough Shoal, or continues its harassment of Filipino fishermen and troops in the South China Sea, it is doubtful that Duterte can mend ties with Beijing.

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