Too bad, I was wrong

by Jose Ma. Montelibano
Jose M. Montelibano

I must admit that I am so disappointed with the turn of events. When President Duterte offered VP Leni Robredo a key role in the war against drugs, I immediately hoped the VP would accept. She hesitated at first, influenced, I am sure, by naysayers within her circle of political allies. That was understandable, but yet indefensible if she had ultimately accepted their advice. Thankfully, VP Leni accepted. I was quietly hopeful because it has been a long time since our two highest officials tried to work as a team instead of as leaders from opposing political factions.

For reasons that are not really clear to me, not from all the official pronouncements and opposition counterclaims, President Duterte terminated VP Leni. Just after two weeks. This is what stumps me – just two weeks – for President Duterte to give up on VP Leni after two weeks. There was no obvious cause, no major booboo, and the most I can think of is VP Leni asking for the list of high-value targets. If truly she was co-chair in the nation’s anti-drug effort, it was but normal to know the key facts from top-to-bottom. Yet, her simple asking became a controversy. When that happened, when unkind remarks began to fly back and forth from partisans of both camps, it was the beginning of the end.

Trust. There was no trust. There was a willingness from both the President and the Vice-President but no trust. Both could not silence their allies to give the new push with VP Leni involved a new beginning, a fresh start, for a national effort to address a national scourge. Partisans from both sides kept commenting and were almost accusatory at times. Everybody wanted to be involved in the drama of the President and the Vice-President as political adversaries, but none or so few in their drama as the top protectors of the people and country against a relentless enemy out to destroy especially our young and the poor.

I know I am but one of the millions of citizens who feel the drug threat and the fact that the threat has not subsided. After President Duterte had thrown everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink, at what the illegal drug trade, his promise of 6 months did not materialize. Now, even a 6-year promise would not seem promising. From my end, the 6-month promise was not do-able although it made a great campaign slogan. And I believe the President knew that it could not be done, either.

Mexico and Colombia have been waging their drug wars for decades, with operational and financial assistance from the United States. More than 50 years for Mexico and more than 30 years for Colombia. The Philippines has been infected with drugs from before martial law no concerted anti-drug effort has been waged to the level of war. In other words, our war has just begun. And after three years, it has harvested in thousands of deaths, including hundreds of policemen. It is not a success and it does not see success soon. But it has not been a failure either.

The majority of Filipinos approve of the drug war, for the whole of three years. It will not drop its approval substantially any time soon, either. This approval is a good subject matter to study very deeply, especially for the political opposition, especially for VP Leni, too. First, there is no basis to believe that this approval is false, in quality and quantity, even if the drug trade continues. Those who scientifically track popularity and approval ratings are the same SWS and Pulse Asia that the political opposition believed before President Duterte. When the sentiments change radically, we will feel it as well even before the statistics are gathered and collated. We all felt it, including President Duterte, when policemen killed Kian delos Santos in what the public all but believed was plain murder.

Despite Kian’s case and possibly many more like his, the general public approves of the drug war and President Duterte himself. There can be no sane reason for this phenomenon except to conclude that illegal drugs had been scaring Filipino families for quite some time – but were too intimidated to speak up. Knowing what we know now, highlighted by President Duterte’s public naming of suspected personalities, that government officials and members of the police force were in cahoots with drug lords, the general public had a good basis to be silent and fearful. Just as it has a basis for approval of a drug war despite the killings if they feel a little safer than before.

This was and is my view, that the citizenry continues to be at the mercy of the drug trade unless government steps in boldly and visibly. I believe this is what the public sees President Duterte as doing – stepping in boldly and visibly. The blood adds to the graphics of what is bold and graphic. It does not make a senseless killing right or justifiable, but we must understand why the majority of the public supports it. Just as the President might one day have to understand if and when the public begins to be repulsed by killings related to drugs.

At the same time, public approval is fluid. When the backdrop was that no visible and aggressive effort had been waged by previous administrations, the public approved what President Duterte did even if it caused thousands of deaths. One day, the backdrop may be different, that three or more years have been invested in a determined and aggressive effort but the drug scourge remains active and undeterred. Against a new backdrop like that, the approval can turn to disapproval, or worse.

That was why I thought it was better to hope that President Duterte and VP Leni could lay aside political partisanship, control their respective allies, and work for a national effort together. Too bad, I was wrong.

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