Strong leader, weak state

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EVEN President Duterte’s harshest critics would, I think, concede that he has emerged as the country’s strongest President ever, at par with Ferdinand Marcos in the first years of his strongman rule.

By “strong,” I borrow from political scientists’ definition of a strong state.

First, Duterte is a strong leader because he is independent from the economic elite that in most cases in our past influences Philippine Presidents for their own gain or even leads them by the nose. This is shown by the fact that Duterte’s guns have been trained on what he himself names as “oligarchs”. He has moved or has started to move against the Rufino family that owns the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Lopezes of ABS-CBN Network, and even an oligarch who supported his bid for the presidency, Antonio Floirendo, from his very home province of Davao.

Second, he has shown a determination to do the things he thinks will set the country right, no matter the opposition or obstacles. He hasn’t let up on his war against illegal drugs, despite the virulent opposition by most of the Western media, international human rights groups, and by lackeys of the Yellow crowd that saw it, falsely, as a cause célèbre to demand his ouster.

But Presidents do not operate in a vacuum. To do what he thinks he must do, Duterte can only operate through what we call the state, the ensemble of institutions, especially the bureaucracy, that manages a nation.

Unfortunately, we have a weak state, and there are already indications that the bureaucracy has been too weak or even been captured by the elite, enough to block Duterte’s moves.

Dunkin’ Donuts case
Take the case of the tax liabilities estimated at P1.5 billion of the local franchisee of Dunkin’ Donuts. Duterte brought the case to the public in July last year, which was actually an open-and-shut case as the firm had received its final tax assessment way back in 2014. That means the case can no longer be appealed.

The Bureau of Internal Revenue, of course, jumped to follow Duterte’s marching orders, and by August last year had a task force of sorts to prosecute the Dunkin’ Donuts case. It’s been nearly a year, and the case hasn’t moved a bit. I have been informed that the BIR”s legal group’s enthusiasm over the case waned after a ranking official of the agency met with the firm’s lawyer.

As former Presidential Chief of Staff of President Arroyo, I saw for myself how the bureaucracy could ignore the President’s orders or even sabotage them. The corrupt bureaucrat’s main strategy is to simply drag  his feet, and hope that in the myriad of issues a President has to deal with, he or she gets to forget his or her orders. The tool box of corrupt bureaucrats mostly contains legal tools, that this law or this legal technicality can’t be overcome.

This is the reason why one of the most powerful officials of a President is the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel (CPLC) as he can tell the President that this agency’s corrupt legal officers are just fooling him that his orders can’t be implemented without violating government rules and regulations. It is the CPLC who actually clears all legal obstacles for a major presidential initiative, even before this is announced.

I do hope Duterte’s chief legal counsel, the sartorially young Salvador Panelo, is up to the job, and doing his job.

CPLC’s huge task
The work of the CPLC is actually so huge as it requires much legal research and analysis, that the CPLCs in two past administrations had to rely on the law firm they had left for the humongous legal research work that required the best legal minds.

In a situation, though, of a state continually under siege for control by the elite, that firm became too powerful that it became the entity representing elite interests that captured a part of those administrations.It became so powerful that it emerged as the most deadly member of former President Aquino 3rd’s coalition that removed the Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona from office, in its expectation that one of its former members would replace him. (Aquino double-crossed them and instead chose his college buddy Lourdes Sereno for chief justice.)

I myself, a Presidential Chief Staff, witnessed how weak a bureaucracy is that it can even do the opposite of what a President wants. In 2002, our office launched a lifestyle check program that targeted notorious government officials. My office did manage to compile evidence against a dozen BIR, Customs, and even DPWH officials. It was a shock to me though when we discovered that one of my staff had reportedly extorted P5 million by threatening Customs officials that if they don’t pay up, they would be “lifestyle-checked”. A state’s weaknesses could indeed be that bad.

Why is it weak?
Why is the Philippine state weak? Because of its history.

Contrary to naïve notions that all it takes is to imbue the bureaucracy with professionalism through training seminars and “value-formation,” our bureaucracy is an organism that has evolved not just through decades but through centuries.

The strong bureaucracies in developed Western states such as the UK, France, and Germany evolved through centuries as efficient tax-collecting systems and war machines of feudal lords. A king who didn’t bother to improve the efficiency of his bureaucracy didn’t last long. It was easy therefore for democratic systems to use such strong bureaucracies created by centuries of feudalism.

Russia and the People’s Republic of China’s growth has been much understated: they leapt to their industrial age in decades almost straight from the most backward forms of feudalism, in contrast to the West which took centuries to do so. How did they manage to perform these feats? They had communist parties whose cadres penetrated each level of the bureaucracy to weed out the corrupt and to force it to be efficient.

To a significant extent, it was such party cadres, but not from communist parties, that were responsible for the development of our Asian neighbors: theLiberal Democratic Party that led Japan’s development in the post-war era up to the 1990s; the Kuomintang Party in Taiwan; the People’s Action Party that has ruled Singapore since 1959; and UMNO (United Malays National Organization) that has been the party in power in Malaysia since 1959.

In contrast, our Spanish colonizers didn’t care to build up a bureaucracy, as local areas were basically ruled through the friars, and they focused on the Galleon Trade to amass wealth rather than improve tax collection. The Americans apparently focused on education, rather than building up a strong bureaucracy.

Other than limiting his work to the things he thinks would change the country, Duterte must at this time move towards reforming our bureaucracy, so it would be the strong organization for a strong leader. Alas, not even the most basic initiative to reform the bureaucracy—an institutionalized, powerful anti-corruption campaign—has been started.