Vice President Leni Robredo
Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo leads the turnover of a two-classroom school building in Batang-Batang Elementary School in Victoria, Tarlac. (Cherie Joyce V. Flores/PIA 3)

It has taken on a life of its own, but it was evident that President Rodrigo Duterte’s only purpose was to stop Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo’s criticism of his so-called “war on drugs” when he dared her last October 31 to take charge of it for the next six months. 

The Vice President had declared that the brutal Duterte anti-drug campaign was a failure and has to be “ tweaked,” by which she meant re-studied and re-oriented. Mr. Duterte conveniently forgot that he himself had admitted early this year that he has failed to fulfill his 2016 campaign promise to put an end to the drug problem within six months.

Apparently on the assumption that Mrs. Robredo would refuse to take the Duterte dare seriously, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo went as far as to announce that if she accepted the post of “anti-illegal drugs czar,” the Vice President would “have under her command all offices, bureaus, agencies or government instrumentalities involved in the enforcement of the law on prohibited drugs,” that they would be under her direct supervision, and that “to ensure her effectiveness in combatting the drug menace, she would have a Cabinet Secretary portfolio.”

Mr. Duterte himself then said that the post he was offering would last till the end of his term in 2022 and not just for six months, which was the length of time he had earlier said he was giving the Vice President to address the drug problem.

Panelo in effect withdrew his earlier announcement when, despite her spokesperson’s statements to the contrary, Vice President Robredo took Mr. Duterte’s dare in stride and accepted his so-called offer. Instead of repeating what he said before Mrs. Robredo accepted responsibility for the anti-illegal drugs campaign, Panelo then told the media that she should talk to Mr. Duterte first so she can be told what her powers and duties are as Co-Chairperson of the Interagency Committee on Anti-illegal Drugs (ICAD).

Mrs. Robredo’s acceptance of that post was apparently more than what the regime had bargained for. Because her statement on why she accepted the post despite reservations by her Liberal Party colleagues, human rights groups and critics of the Duterte regime’s bloody and selective “war on drugs” was intelligent, sober, and  statesmanlike, it immediately gained her widespread support. The next public opinion surveys will very likely confirm a boost in her approval ratings.

The Duterte dare was all too obvious in its intentions. If she had ignored the dare, it would have given regime allies, trolls and media hacks the opportunity to dismiss her as all talk. If she accepted it — which, judging from their earlier statements, Mr. Duterte’s accomplices thought was unlikely — the agencies involved, among them the Philippine  National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) whose head would be her Co-Chairperson, could throw all sorts of obstacles in her path to make sure she would fail.

The political consequences of being perceived as just a nitpicking fault-finder or a failure are obvious enough. Among others, it would write off Mrs. Robredo as a possible opposition candidate for the Presidency in 2022, and, by validating Duterte regime claims that she and the opposition are incompetent, would help pave the way for the victory of Mr. Duterte and company’s candidate in the elections that year. 

But what are at stake are far beyond what’s obvious. It is not only Mrs. Robredo’s and the opposition’s political future in the next eight years till 2028. On the block as well would be the fate of what’s left of Philippine elite democracy and the further entrenchment of the incompetent provincial despotism that has hijacked the political system, weaponized the law against its critics, and brought corruption to unprecedented heights while the rest of the country falls deeper and deeper into the pit of poverty, injustice, violence and mass misery.

Mrs. Robredo had no choice but to accept under these circumstances. But she has wisely refused to be lured into issuing any declaration that she would succeed in the next two-and-a-half years in ridding the country of the drug problem that the Duterte regime has failed to eradicate in the more than three years it has been in power. Instead of making any such claim, she has pledged only to save as many lives as possible by redirecting the anti-drug campaign away from the wanton killing of suspected drug users and pushers to looking at the drug problem as both a public health and human rights issue.

The mindless assumption that the multidimensional drug problem  — it is an economic, social as well as political, psychological and cultural issue — can be solved overnight by simply killing or jailing users and pushers has time and again been disproven.  What the experience of other countries shows is that it will require both time as well as a multi-pronged, multi-disciplinal approach to even begin to address it.

Launched by then President Richard Nixon nearly 50 years ago in 1971, the United States’ own “war on drugs” has failed to curb drug abuse.  Instead “it has ruined lives, filled prisons and cost a fortune,” said a New York Times op-ed piece in 2017.

The US is in fact still among those countries with the highest rates of drug use among their populations. Not original to the Duterte regime, but a phrase first coined by the US news media, the “war on drugs” is focused on making access to prohibited substances difficult. To combat their influx into its borders, the US spends billions in military aid to help Colombia — whose drug lords are among the main sources of the cocaine and other drugs that flood the US — stop the drug cartels. Drug abuse continues, however, and has led to the exponential growth of the US prison population as more and more young drug users end up in jail.

Closer to home, Thailand’s 2003 anti-drug campaign has similarly failed, despite the government of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s focus on killing drug dealers and users — a policy that by 2004 had cost over 3,000 deaths. Most of those killed, it later turned out, were not at all involved in the drug trade. Thailand’s drug problem has since worsened rather than abated.

Given these lessons from the experience of the US and Thailand, Mrs. Robredo wisely steered clear of promising the end of the drug problem under her watch. It isn’t only because her getting the full cooperation of the agencies involved is at least uncertain. It is also because the drug problem is rooted in, among other factors, poverty and the runaway corruption in some of those very agencies, among them, as the Senate hearings last September found, the PNP.

Meanwhile, the trap the regime set for Mrs. Robredo has backfired into a public relations disaster for it. It has enabled the Vice President to focus on stopping extrajudicial killings (EJKs), while at the same time alerting the public to the imperative of holding Mr. Duterte to his pledge that the agencies under his command and control will provide Mrs. Robredo all the cooperation, support, information and help she needs between now and 2022. By the end of his and her terms that year she could emerge the winner in the short-sighted attempt to silence and destroy her politically. Mr. Duterte and company have very likely outmaneuvered themselves.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Philippine Information Agency.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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