In their recent verbal war, Netherlands-based Jose Maria Sison lashed out against President Rodrigo Rod Duterte accusing him of being the country’s no. 1 drug addict. “As an addict user of the opioid Fentanyl,” says Sison. ” Duterte is the No. 1 drug addict in the Philippines and is the most fitting target of the police units that he has turned into death squads and corrupted with money and promotions.”
Sison’s tirade against his erstwhile student and publicly proclaimed “friend” is the latest among a series of verbal accusations which came shortly after Duterte publicly humiliated Sison in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) cursing him and revealing to the world that Sison is “dying of colon cancer.” While we are being entertained by the colorful words being used by these two seventy plus years old leaders, what is most substantive here is the meaning of all of these highly publicized theatrics between representatives of conflicting ideologies–one, advocating for revolutionary changes from the outside and the other who claims to be advocating for his own version of revolution, albeit, pushed by militarists and reactionaries.
We can briefly describe this episode as the two fading leaders’ attempt at consolidating their power bases for an expected collision anytime soon.
But first, let me just say that both gentlemen represent two conflicting concepts of governance, which, upon collision, create internecine conflicts which have plagued the Philippines for more than half a decade already. Joma represents the revolutionary movement which had since advocated for a drastic change of Philippine society along the lines of Socialism. While Duterte represents the traditional politicos whose concept seemed centered on using state power to effect change. Both theories, mind you, have been historically pre-judged by the people as moribund concepts. The people have moved against dictatorship in 1986 while as early as the fifties, the Filipino People have since rejected the thought of Socialism as the central governing model in this country.
It seems though that Duterte has been unleashed by his class to avoid or stop the revolutionary movement from its tracks. Militarists like Defense secretary Lorenzana have expressed alarm over recruitment efforts being undertaken by the New People’s Army (NPA). Lorenzana, a former general, thinks that the NPA is again growing because the Government gave the rebels enough space to maneuver and conduct a roadshow so to speak, while talks are being held.
Analyzing both Joma’s and Duterte’s positions, I find them both as hostages, not leaders, of their own groups. Inspite of his bravado, Duterte is not the leader of the new set of clerico-Fascists within Philippine society. It appears that Duterte is just a spokesperson of the group, a group closely aligned with the United States’ State department. When Duterte made a drastic pivot to China, US aligned members of his Cabinet blamed his Leftist friends for influencing him. For most of 2016, Duterte expressed his “independence,” bashing the United States for being an imperialist, while tuning his sights on China and Russia.
This change in foreign policy direction did not sit well with the Americans. First, the Philippines remains an important ally and serves an important role in ensuring the effectiveness of US first strike capabilities in the Asia-Pacific. Secondly, the Philippines is an important peg in homeland defense against threats coming from Asian rogue states such as North Korea. The Americans need to solve a problem like Duterte and how best to do it by tugging him in or moving for his ouster.
The latter seemed dead on its tracks due to the inability of the Constitutional successor to prove her worthiness as Digong’s replacement. Robredo is still not an acceptable successor by a large majority of the Filipino people. Moving for the extra-constitutional ouster of Digong could prove disastrous for the United States. The best option really, is to hold Digong hostage by giving him a war that he would be busy trying his best to solve. This came with the outbreak of hostilities in Marawi which is now, Duterte’s Damocles sword.
Prior to the Marawi siege incident, Duterte seems in control of his administration. When war broke out, there was a noticeable shift of power, from Duterte’s group which advocated for making tactical and strategic alliances with the revolutionary forces, to the militarists led by his own Defense secretary Lorenzana and ex-Generals and former military men under the ideological influence of former or ex-Communists now turned clerico-Fascists. Compared with the revolutionary movement, this group is more consolidated and uses the state bureaucracy in shoring more power. This explains why Mr. Duterte is mouthing more statements suggesting a more militarized Philippine state, which echo the sentiments and views of this group which has been advocating for the transformation of the Philippine state along the lines of Thailand’s and Pakistan’s governmental models.
Duterte, it seems, has been deployed to fight the Communists as these people are the no. 1 stumbling block in the operations of mining firms in the country. By severing his ties and distancing himself from his “Socialist friends”, Duterte is sending a firm message to this clerico-Fascist group not to entertain thoughts of ousting him from office. Duterte and his own group know that his political survival is now on the line, after his declaration of martial rule and the outbreak of hostilities between security forces and the extreme Islamists. Duterte’s political fate rests in the success of this endeavor, which, everyone knows, is not solely dependent on military operations alone but needs a more sophisticated approach.
Joma, meanwhile, is using the public platform as an occasion to express support behind most dominant views harbored by young Party leaders in regard to Duterte’s administration. In doing so, Joma is re-establishing his leadership by showing his intellectual dominance, a tool which he has been using since he established his base abroad. Joma hopes to further maintain intellectual influence over party members by providing them the belief of the exactness of his political analysis. By allowing Joma to engage Duterte in a verbal battle, the revolutionary forces are positioning themselves as an alternative to Duterte, as support for Duterte is expected to go South very soon.
Duterte’s popularity has already peaked at 83 percent, and his further political survival hinged on this. Reports indicate a substantive chunk of his former die hard supporters are becoming impatient and are keeping a more conservative stance vis-a-vis Duterte. Duterte is fast losing a narrative to sustain the public’s interests and without an interesting one, the Leader risks losing mass base support, critical in implementing the interests of the group he is now aligned with.
That explains why Duterte has chosen the Left as his focus of attacks. First, it keeps his shadowy clerico-Fascists supporters happy. Second, it bares the deep ideological fissures in Philippine society which, when publicly reveals, creates realistic divisions among the Filipino audiences. Third, it deters the revolutionary forces from moving in in the event of a leadership vacuum and lastly, the developing polarization within the Duterte administration is expected to weaken it politically and socially, allowing the ouster movement to gain further strength.