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 the 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 influenced Philippine presidents for their own gain or even led 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-Prieto clan that owns the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Lopezes of the ABS-CBN television network. He took on both Lucio Tan, for Philippine Airlines’s P6-billion unpaid fees to government, and Mighty Corp., the competitor of Tan’s Fortune Tobacco, for its P30-billion tax liabilities.
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 on illegal drugs, despite the virulent opposition by most of the Western media, international human rights groups, and by the lackeys of the Yellow crowd that saw it, falsely, as a cause célèbre to oust him.
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 has even been captured by the elite — even by criminal and provincial elites — as to block Duterte’s reforms.
The BuCor case
Exhibit 1: The release by the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) of about 2,000 heinous crime convicts since October 2013 on account of “good conduct.” This was done by exploiting and —whether deliberately or not — misinterpreting the provisions of Republic Act 10592, or the Good Conduct Time Allowance Law, that President Benigno Aquino 3rd signed into law in 2013.
It would be naïve to believe that BuCor officials applied the law “blindly,” without favor. Most likely, they did so as a smokescreen for some cases, but they “applied” the law to drastically reduce sentences, for huge bribes, especially if the convict had been a local elite with huge resources.
Do you think that convicts who were given their own private quarters, allowed to build their own private tennis courts as in the case of a former politician convicted for murder, or had a “recording studio” beside his quarters, got these privileges out of the sheer goodness of the BuCor officials’ hearts?
The episode was such a shocking one. After all, his fiercest critics see Duterte as the consummate “punisher,” who allegedly has no qualms about allowing police to execute hardened criminals extrajudicially, or who even wants capital punishment restored for heinous crimes. Why would he allow heinous criminals to be released?
The utter weakness of the state in this case is so starkly demonstrated: Mere bureaucrats freed heinous criminals convicted by the courts over many months, even years, of trial– as in the case of murderer-rapist Antonio Sanchez — that were upheld by the Supreme Court itself.
Exhibit 2: The tax case of the local franchisee of Dunkin’ Donuts, mainly owned by the powerful elite Rufino-Prieto clan. The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) had imposed a final tax assessment on it of P1.5 billion way back in 2014. The term “final tax assessment” means the case can no longer be appealed. But then the franchisee’s biggest stockholder is a media mogul whose Philippine Daily Inquirer, was one of the Aquino 3rd regime’s main propaganda pillars, the other being ABS-CBN.
Just a year in office, in April 2017, the President of the Republic publicly claimed: “Dunkin’ Donuts had tax dues that were settled during the time of [former internal revenue commissioner] Kim Henares. They did not pay anything or only paid less taxes.”
One would think that the bureaucrats would have trembled and scrambled to act at those words uttered by their boss.
But we have a weak state. Despite the fact that the case was one of the most studied tax cases at the BIR, with documents on it filling several filing cabinets, the BIR filed its case against the firm only a year later, in February 2018. Why, it even lowered the firm’s tax liabilities to P1.1 billion.
Filed where? At the Justice department which is to decide if there is “probable cause” to file the case in the courts. As of today — a year and a half later — the case is still “pending for resolution.” Why didn’t the Department of Justice — already overloaded with so many high-profile cases with hardly any expertise in the very complex field of tax laws — simply uphold the BIR’s findings? Why is it taking more than a year to resolve the case?
The timeline could answer these questions. Duterte has just three more years to go, and perhaps a more “accommodating” president would win in 2022. And it is not inconceivable that a prosecutor would find tens of millions of reasons to conclude that, hey, there’s no tax case at all, no need to bring this to the courts.
Strong leader, weak state indeed.
Halfway past his term, Duterte must at this time move towards reforming our bureaucracy to make it a strong organization for a strong leader. This is the biggest difference in running a country and running a city. Davao City probably has at most a staff of 4,000. The national government has 1.2 million.