Philippines president-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s pledge to restructure power in favour of the disadvantaged regions in the country looks quite ambitious, as he would need cooperation of political and business classes to realise this noble dream. The president-elect’s new plan to negotiate with China over disputed China South Sea, represents a departure from the Philippines’ traditional politics and will not pass without a local, regional and international diplomatic row.
There are forecasts that the country would grow faster than its neighbors this year, aided by low oil prices and continued healthy consumption. However, this doesn’t augur well with outspoken Duterte who insists growth hasn’t trickled down enough.
He believes the power and wealth have been centred in Manila. Of course, he is not wrong. A quarter of Filipinos still live in poverty. Worse, despite all the claims about progress, Manila’s crumbling and traffic-choked roads remain a nightmare.
Yet to be fair, outgoing President Benigno Aquino will leave the country on a stronger footing than he found it six years ago. The country now boasts a current account surplus, an investment-grade credit rating, improved.
Once labelled Asia’s “sick man”, the nation of 101 million people has earned World Bank praise as the continent’s “rising tiger”, posting average annual growth of 6.2 percent over the past six years, the fastest pace since the 1970s.
Despite his incendiary rhetoric, Duterte should leave the election campaign trail behind and embrace the world of pragmatics. He must work with Congress if he wants to pursue land reforms that would spread growth beyond Manila, or if he wants to open up more sectors of the economy, including mining, to greater foreign investment.
Frankly, his local success as a longtime mayor of Davao City would not qualify him to sustain Aquino’s legacy, especially in running the economy. But the man acknowledged his limitations when he declared he would tackle the economic file by hiring the best economic minds. Indeed, this is a credit.
Duterte believes the best way to effect a change in the rural areas is to spend on education to benefit disadvantaged regions and rural development. This approach will help in the long run and spread wealth more evenly across the country.
For the president-elect, the road is not furnished with roses. He is awaiting a UN tribunal on a case the Philippines brought against China’s expansive maritime claims in the Spratly Islands chain.
Even before the ruling, Duterte seems to mix up cards regarding the geopolitics of the region. To counter the Chinese increasing role in the region, the Philippines welcomed US military forces back to its shores for the first time in decades.
Now Duterte tries to flirt with China by offering to negotiate concessions in return for infrastructure investment. If this approach becomes an official policy, it may undermine the country’s foreign policy with neighbouring countries in dispute with China over the Sea, including Japan, Vietnam and would also weaken US efforts to build regional support over the South China Sea.
Given gravity of the crisis, China has downplayed Duterte could settle the dispute.
History has it that the election campaign trail always clashes with practical facts on the ground, especially in the democratic states, where major policies require majority support.
It has to be seen how best Duterte cabinet will tackle the hot issues, notably the economic restructuring and the crisis with China.