By Aie Balagtas See
Four and half years into his presidency, Rodrigo Duterte has fallen short on his vow to root out government corruption in the Philippines while carrying out another pledge – of waging war on illegal drugs, to lethal effect – analysts say.
When he campaigned for office in 2016, the then mayor of southern Davao City pledged to rid the country of the narcotics trade and deep-seated corruption. The tough-talking Duterte promised voters that he would kill all drug pushers “and dump them in Manila Bay, which will be red with their blood.”
Since then, his administration’s controversial drug war has left thousands of suspected drug dealers and addicts dead, but the president, according to analysts, has wavered on corruption. And although he has repeatedly warned that his anti-graft program would spare no one, the firebrand leader dillydallies when it comes to officials who are close to him but under a cloud of suspicion, political experts say.
“It’s been four years, but I have yet to see his administration prosecute an ally or a popular politician,” Ramon Casiple, head of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, told BenarNews.
Casiple said he “would be surprised if someone even gets prosecuted,” adding that he had observed a pattern in Duterte’s presidency of letting “corruption issues slide.”
Last week, the president announced that he would devote the last two years of his six-year term to purging government of graft, as he ordered the formation of a task force to go after dirty officials at all levels of public office. On Monday, the president reiterated that his administration would be relentless in fighting internal corruption.
“Was he able to keep the [campaign] promise? The problem with making those kinds of promises is that they are very difficult to achieve,” Herman Joseph Kraft, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, told BenarNews.
The creation of the new task force seems superfluous because an Office of the Ombudsman already exists for such a mission, but the move is likely intended to further boost Duterte’s image as a strongman and law and order president, analysts say.
“The argument that came out was the task force was redundant but [supporters] see this as necessary because the office that’s supposed to do these tasks was not able to deliver,” Kraft said.
Despite inroads by past administrations, corruption in high places has long turned off many investors in this Southeast Asian archipelago-nation, once considered among the freest democracies in the world.
Back in 2016, Duterte’s rhetoric as a tough guy going up against the Philippines’ political elite captured the public’s imagination and catapulted him to the highest office in the land.
Many Filipinos who voted for him hoped he would clean up the bureaucracy, while bringing peace and order to the country.
Now, as he enters the homestretch of his presidency – which is limited to one term under the constitution – the issue of corruption has kept hounding him. Until now, he has focused much of his time in office on the drug war, whose thousands of extrajudicial killings have led to widespread criticism by human rights groups and indictments against Duterte by the International Criminal Court.
Duterte: ‘You will eat money in front of me’
High-profile corruption cases that have arisen during the Duterte administration include a billion-peso scandal at the state-run Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth), and anomalies at the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the Bureau of Immigration.
At the center of the Philhealth scam is former Chief Executive Officer Ricardo Morales, an ex-military general and known Duterte associate who resigned amid a public uproar over allegations that a lot of money went missing from the corporation.
On Monday, the president issued an order suspending 21 Philhealth officials over the scandal, and 44 others from the Bureau of Immigration.
However, he did not name Morales as among those to be investigated.
“The next round will be by December,” Duterte told a press briefing Monday. “Many will lose their jobs, many will be separated from the government, many will face prosecution, and many will go to jail, that I can say.”
“Didn’t I say in the past that if you really are into the money, I will feed it to you literally?” Duterte said. “That’s me. Because you are unethical, you will eat money in front of me. That is my style. It is not nice. It is wrong. It could even be a criminal act, but just the same, I’ll do it.”
The corruption case at the immigration bureau, meanwhile, has centered on alleged bribes offered by Chinese citizens to allow them to enter the Philippines. During a Senate investigation, one witness testified that immigration officials had escorted undocumented Chinese out of the airport in exchange for money.
Duterte has failed to act strongly against perceived political allies tainted with alleged corruption, according to observers.
Among them is Nicanor Faeldon, the former Philippine customs chief, who resigned after he had failed to stop the entry of a large contraband shipment of methamphetamines.
Months later, Faeldon was appointed chief of the Bureau of Corrections. But late last year, after Faeldon’s name was tied to alleged anomalies over the release of convicted criminals, Duterte was forced to let him go. Faeldon, however, was not charged.
Some officials accused of corruption were luckier than Faeldon. They got to hold onto their posts, with the president vouching for their characters.
These include Health Secretary Francisco Duque II who has been linked to alleged anomalies at Philhealth since 2019. But Duterte has consistently defended the health secretary.
According to Kraft, the president may seem “selective” or “hypocritical” in his anti-corruption campaign. That said, Philippine politics have always been about “mutuality,” which means that you aid and protect people who helped you get to the top, as Kraft described it.
“My suspicion is that he protects people he personally knows,” the analyst said of Duterte.