MANILA – As he did last year, President RodrigoRoa Duterte dominated the news in 2018. Critics and admirers noted practically everything he did and taking to social media to express their admiration or disgust the Mr. Duterte.
He did not disappoint. Much like his US counterpart, President Donald Trump, he spoke his mind without holding back, eschewing political correctness in favor of shoot-from-the-hip comments that occasionally left even his spokesmen aghast.
The first month of the year began with what looked like a positive sign that the Philippines could switch to a federal form of government, when the Senate and the House of Representatives agreed to convene as a constituent assembly. While there had been calls for a constitutional convention instead of assembly, the two houses of the bicameral Congress could not agree on a timetable. Later in the year, the heads of the two – Koko Pimentel and Pantaleon Alvarez – would be removed from their posts, putting a damper on the plan that Mr. Duterte had been pushing for since assuming the presidency. The con-ass plan would later be scrapped with the majority of senators refusing to join House representatives to act as a one body.
At the same time, the communist movement called for the ouster of President Duterte. Although the administration all but ignored the call, the once-close ties between President Duterte and Joma Sison continued to deteriorate. Where once the two were on friendly terms – Sison was once upon a time a college professor of Mr. Duterte – the president would eventually call for an and to any peace talks with the underground Left.
The still young year saw a frightening scenario painted by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front warning that the global terrorist group ISIS would seek to establish a caliphate in Philipppine territory. MILF chairman Ebrahim Murad said he had intelligence information that the ISIS’ losses in the Mideast was setting the stage for their transfer of operations to Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.
In another Middle East story, the Philippines temporarily suspended the deployment of workers to the Kingdom of Kuwait, citing numerous complaints of abuse committed by Kuwaiti employers against Filipino workers. The ban was enforced after the body of a Filipino worker who had been strangled to death, Joanna Daniella Demafelis, was discovered in a freezer in Kuwait.
A nationwide transport strike only came close to crippling the country, but the Duterte administration opted to play it safe by ordering the suspension of classes at all levels on the third week of March. Transport groups were protesting the mandatory government-ordered modernization plan which would do away with the old, gas or diesel guzzling jeepneys, the most common form of public transportation in the Philippines. The government offered to grant soft loans for jeepney operators to buy new units, preferably electric powered.
Meanwhile, the Duterte administration’s anti-drug war which had seen the killing of thousands of suspected pushers and users – estimates range from a low of 5,000 to a high of 20,000 – took a hit when three of the biggest suspected drug lord were ordered freed by the court. Peter Lim, Kerwin Espinosa, and Peter Co were set free due to “insufficiency of evidence.” The administration said that just because the trio were set free “did not mean that they were innocent.”
Defeated vice presidential bet Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos’s bid to negate the victory of Leni Robredo began with an official recount, under the Presidential Electoral Tribunal. Despite numerous delays and accusations and counter-accusations by both camps, the recount proceeded. It would not end until yearend, when the tribunal confirmed that Robredo had indeed won more voted than Marcos, and was thus the unquestioned Vice President of the Philippines.
The onset of summer proved hotter than usual, but not because of the weather. The Train Law had come into full effect, and consumers were stunned at the sudden rise in the prices of numerous goods and services. The Duterte administration insisted that the law was a necessary bitter medicine needed to boost the economy.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was removed from office by fellow Supreme Court justices, allegedly at the behest of President Duterte. Despite official denials, Sereno’s removal via what some legal experts say was an illegal act damaged the credibility of the Duterte administration.
By the end of May, the public had seemingly had enough of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (Train) law, which was blamed for rising prices of various consumer goods, spurring runaway inflation. Despite widespread calls to suspend the law, the Duterte administration hung tough, even vowing to push through with Train2, the law which would include more products and services to be levied higher taxes.
Also in May, the administration had to mend fences with Kuwait after an over-eager team from the Philippine embassy in the Mideast country “rescued” an overseas Filipino worker who had sought help after allegedly being held captive by her employer. Kuwait was angered by the embassy’s failure to coordinate with local authorities.
In yet another presidential act that was described as anti-poor, President Duterte called for the outlawing of loitering and the arrest of mostly young men spending time in the streets, outside their homes. Human rights activists pointed out that it was not illegal to stand or sit in public areas, but the Philippine National Police followed the president’s orders by accosting and arresting more than 5,000 mostly young men after the order was given.
A more chilling incident followed by an unannounced landing of a military plane, both involving the Chinese military, threatened to worsen the country’s relations with its powerful neighbor. The first saw the Chinese Coast Guard intercept Filipino fishermen in the waters of the contested Scarborough Shoal and taking their catch. Then, a Chinese Air Force plane landed in Davao City’s international airport. Chinese ambassador to Manila Zhao Jianhua met with the president and promised to investigate the twin incidents.
As happens every July, President Duterte delivered his State of the Nation Address. This time, backstage dramatics resulted in a delay to the presidential address after Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo staged a coup by grabbing the speakership from highly trusted Duterte ally Pantaleon Alvarez. The president was not pleased.
Earlier in the month, two mayors were shot and killed in a span of two days, both of which were suspected to be politically motivated. Mayor Antonio Halili of Tanauan, Batangas, and Mayor Ferdinand Bote of General Tinio, Nueva Ecija, both succumbed to gunshot wounds from unknown assassins. Months later, no suspects have been apprehended or charged.
Federalism, one of the pillars of then candidate Duterte’s bid for the presidency, was supposed to be launched in August, but the initial steps quickly caused the plan to falter. For one, the controversial Presidential communications assistant secretary Mocha Uson had been tasked to help sell the idea of a federal form of government to the people. Using social media, she crafted a vulgar launch that nobody liked.
Even Duterte allies such as Senators Ping Lacson and Chiz Escudero lambasted the launch, which caused other supporters to declare that federalism was dead in the water.
Later in the month, Mr. Duterte nearly “forgot” the significance of August 21, the death anniversary of the late former senator Ninoy Aquino. He corrected the error by praising the martyred lawmaker, despite being known as an ardent fan of Aquino’s nemesis, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
September was not exactly a good month for President Duterte, what with his once soaring popularity taking a dramatic drop. Both his approval and trust ratings fell by double digits, but were still considered high, based on a Pulse Asia survey.
In what is considered one of the oddest “events” of the Duterte presidency, Malacanang announced that the chief executive would announce a “major development” which had many thinking he would declare martial law nationwide. Instead, he had a rambling televised “tete-a-tete” with Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, during which Mr. Duterte repeatedly threw insults at his number one critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV.
The president sought but failed to have Trillanes arrested on multiple occasions by raising previous charges of which the senator had previously been granted amnesty.
Election season unofficially began in October when candidates for the 2019 mid-term elections began filing their Certificates of Candidacy. And while no candidate is allowed to seek votes prior to the official campaign period next year, veteran politicians from entrenched dynasties found a way to skirt election laws by placing their faces on congratulatory messages, holiday greetings, and claims of completed public works projects anywhere they could.
The president’s health again became an issue in October after photos showed the chief executive looking unwell, has face taking a grey pallor. The Palace, however, said there was nothing wrong with Mr. Duterte, who added that his unnatural coloring was due to his misuse of his partner’s facial cream. He then admitted undergoing a colonoscopy at one of the top hospitals in the metropolis, but added that he was free of cancer.
The penultimate month of the year saw the President welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive for a two-day state visit, during which time the Philippines and China inked a controversial pact that called for “joint exploration” of the West Philippine Sea, which China insists is part of their territory and which is called the Soith China Sea.
Also in November, the Sandiganbayan finally convicted former First Lady Imelda Marcos of seven counts of graft. The anti-graft court sentenced her to six years and one month up to 11 years in prison. However, police were wary of arresting her, and the flamboyant Mrs. Marcos was able to avoid incarceration when her lawyers were able to appeal her case before the Supreme Court.
The country’s economy finally saw inflation slow down towards the end of the year after months of steady increase. Unemployment, however, continued to be a nagging problem despite Mr. Duterte’s “Build Build Build” program.
On the plus side, the country rejoiced as the US finally returned the Balangiga bells, which had been taken by the US Army as war booty during the Philippine American War more than a century earlier.
By the last month of the year, it had become clear that Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had mustered the courage to openly defy Malacanang. The former president backed calls from congressmen to fire Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno over budgetary insertions. In reply, President Duterte expressed his full support for his Budget chief.
In the last few days of the year, President Duterte remained firmly entrenched in power, but still frequently complaining that he was tired of the presidency.