Rodrigo Duterte begins his six-year term as the 16th president of the Philippines today, having been borne to that post by mass discontent with the Aquino administration and his own incessant theme of putting an end to both corruption and criminality within months.

Duterte was elected by some 16 million voters among a field of five candidates, and defeated his closest rival by five million votes. But for some sectors and individuals — among whom he was not particularly popular in the first place — his assuming the country’s highest office isn’t an occasion for celebration but a cause for worry because of what he’s been saying during the campaign as well as during the past seven weeks since the May 9 elections, and for what he is widely thought to have done while mayor of Davao City.

Human rights groups are especially uneasy. Duterte has vowed not only to have Congress restore the death penalty, but also to bring back hanging as the means of execution. His priority bills are expected to breeze through the legislative mill, thanks to the likely dominance of the “supermajority” composed of his PDP-Laban party and its allied parties in the House of Representatives.

He has offered a bounty for the arrest and even elimination of drug dealers, suggested that armed citizens can arrest and kill criminals, urged the police to kill anyone who resists arrest, and — in implicit acknowledgement that these “suggestions” may be in violation of human rights — has also pledged to ignore the Commission on Human Rights. His supposed sponsorship of the Davao Death Squad — which he has both denied as well as admitted — also casts a long shadow of concern among human rights groups both here and abroad.

Media groups are similarly worried, not only because he has virtually endorsed the killing of journalists whom he has condemned as universally corrupt and therefore deserving of elimination, but also because, in an unprovoked verbal assault on a journalist who asked him about the state of his health, he demonstrated for all the world to see a disturbing impatience with the press’ duty to provide the public information about its (then presumptive) highest official.

In response to what he mistakenly thought was a call by Philippine media groups to boycott his press conferences, and in what was certainly a most un-presidential display of pique, he also launched his own embargo by no longer holding press briefings. In retaliation against what he thinks are journalists’ attempts to “make (him) look bad,” he has designated government media as the sole vehicle for his statements, with the exclusive right to cover such occasions as his inauguration and other presidential events.

Significantly, the incoming head of Duterte’s communications group announced during a TV interview the formation of a task force to look into the killing of journalists — not for the purpose of accelerating the prosecution of those responsible, but to establish whether a slain journalist was corrupt or not!

The fear is that Duterte’s approach to crime and punishment will not only encourage vigilantism and extrajudicial killings (EJKs) by the police and military (some are already happening), but also harden further the already pervasive culture of impunity among State security forces. By investing them with the power to decide who lives and who dies — and even announcing that he would protect them — Duterte could be creating a situation in which these forces would be immune from prosecution from such offenses as the murder of suspected criminals.

But if human rights and journalists’ groups have legitimate grounds for apprehension, the main concerns of some retired generals and flag officers as well as active military officials are his initiatives to resume peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), his naming two (out of a promised four) Cabinet secretaries nominated by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and his supposedly entering into a coalition government with the CPP. As both unnamed military sources and former coup plotter Antonio Trillanes IV have warned, these acts will trigger coup attempts to unseat Duterte and to put someone less “leftist” — preferably as far right or even farther right than Benigno Aquino III — in his place.

The key word is “leftist.” While Duterte has described himself as a leftist and even a socialist, his declared policies on addressing crime and corruption (and, for that matter, on the economy) are far from progressive. They’re also in defiance of both the Constitution and the international protocols to which the Philippines is a signatory. But leave it to the denizens of the far Right in this country to zero in on their pet hates — and to use what they think is popular fear of the Left for their own putrid purpose, which has always been to keep Philippine society the way it has been for centuries.

Not that Duterte’s policies are likely to bring about such huge changes in the country of our sorrows as socialism, or even an independent foreign policy free from the country’s decades-long entanglement with US economic and strategic interests. The most that one can hope for is that the body count from his declared campaign to eradicate crime and corruption within months doesn’t exceed the martial law and Arroyo periods’ records of extrajudicial killings, that at least the old and infirm political prisoners unjustly arrested and detained during the Aquino and other past administrations are released, and that some agreement on economic, social and political reforms results from the peace talks between the Duterte administration and the NDFP.

But even these may be too much to expect, if and when the usual coup plotters and conspirators do launch a coup in the manner of the US-supported 1973 coup d’etat in Chile against Salvador Allende. Like Duterte, Allende was also democratically elected, but unlike him, ran on a platform of progressive and socialist policies.

Should an “Allende Scenario” (a successful coup d’etat by right wing forces) materialize, what we can expect would be the exact opposite of Duterte’s promise of change: in addition to a surge in EJKs and human rights violations, the return of authoritarian rule under the auspices of which what the country can expect will be more of the same poverty, mass misery, injustice and the dominance of the few over the many that for centuries has been this country and its people’s fate. It’s either small change in the coming six years—or none at all.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image from Rody Duterte’s Facebook Page)

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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