TALK TO THE PEOPLE. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte holds weekly talk to the people in this undated photo to give the public updates on the government’s Covid-19 response. Though his administration spent a lot of time and resources battling the pandemic, Duterte was no let-up in his campaign against corruption and illegal drugs. (Presidential photo)

MANILA – During his last full year at Malacañan Palace, President Rodrigo R. Duterte may have prioritized the country’s coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic response, but did not let up in his administration’s fight against corruption and illegal drugs as well as effort to defend the country's sovereignty and territory.

Duterte himself said in a December 2 speech that he takes pride in having delivered "almost all" of his campaign promises despite some shortcomings.

In the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, Duterte renewed his call for vaccines to be treated as “a global public good” and called out the European Union (EU) for supposedly restricting the movement of Covid-19 vaccines.

As Covid-19 cases surged anew, Duterte placed certain parts of the country under the strictest enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in March but eased restrictions the following months as infections decreased.

Also in March, the Philippine government stepped up on its Prevent-Detect-Isolate-Test- Reintegrate (PDITR) strategy and finally kicked off its Covid-19 vaccinations.

Though initially reluctant, more Filipinos were slowly convinced to get their jabs after the government released a series of information materials and campaigns, including an infomercial of Duterte inviting the public to get inoculated against Covid-19 released in June.

Duterte, in the same month, pledged to donate USD1 million to the COVAX global vaccine sharing initiative to boost inoculation drives in low-income countries.

In April, the President directed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to hold clinical trials on the use of the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin to treat Covid-19 patients, but later said he would leave the matter between doctors and their patients.

To encourage more Filipinos to get vaccinated, Duterte received his first dose of the Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine in May and the second dose in July.

Amid a decline in Covid infections as well as a public clamor to get rid of the face shield policy over face masks, Duterte limited the requirement to healthcare settings in November.

Corruption

Apart from naming officials suspended and dismissed over corruption in his regular public addresses, Duterte made an effort to prove his dedication to curbing government-wide corruption by answering allegations about how his administration handled Covid-19 response funds.

He defended his Cabinet members after the Commission on Audit (COA) in August released a 2020 audit report on deficiencies amounting to PHP67.3 billion in the government’s purchase of medical supplies from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp.

Duterte maintained the executive department fulfilled its mandate in purchasing the needed medical supplies in a way that was approved under the Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (Bayanihan 1).

The COA later clarified that its report on deficiencies discovered in its management of Covid-19 response funds “does not mention any findings by the auditors of funds lost to corruption”.

COA chief Michael Aguinaldo said the Office of the President adhered to the procurement rules when it entered into contracts for the purchase of Covid-19 medical supplies and ensured accountability.

Duterte repeatedly slammed members of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee for "politicking" ahead of the 2022 national elections by nitpicking on his administration's Covid-19 response efforts.

In November, he expressed confidence that the Senate panel would not be able to find "loopholes" in the government's pandemic spending, noting that he would not have been elected as the country's president if he was corrupt.

Although he admitted that his administration has not totally rid the government of corruption, Duterte said he takes pride in making significant strides in promoting transparency and accountability in government.

Drug war

Though the Covid-19 response remained a top priority, Duterte has also made it a point to show illegal drug coddlers that his administration has not backed down on the fight against illegal drugs.

He would always dedicate time in his regular Talk to the People (TTP) public address to allow Interior Secretary Eduardo Año to report on seized drugs from different anti-drug operations of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

In September, the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an official probe into alleged human rights abuses committed in the country between 2011 and 2019.

Two months later, the Philippines asked the ICC to defer its probe linked to the drug war arguing that it is already investigating the crimes.

The ICC later halted its investigation into the drug war with a reservation that it will proceed in the coming days upon assessment of the "scope and effect" of the request to defer the probe.

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan’s office requested the Philippine government to provide “substantiating information” on proceedings it cited when the latter sought deferral of the investigation into alleged crimes against humanity related to the administration’s anti-illegal drugs campaign.

Malacañang maintained that the ICC request “validates” the ICC’s mandate as a “court of last resort”, noting that the Hague-based court has no jurisdiction to probe the drug war because Philippine judicial processes are working.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently conducting a review of killings of drug suspects involving erring police officers. 

Anti-insurgency efforts

In several speeches this year, Duterte reiterated that peace talks between the government and Communist Party of the Philippines’ (CPP) political wing, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) were futile unless communist rebels lay down their arms.

He said he had no regrets over his decision to terminate peace talks in 2017 because the NDF did not want to hold its members accountable for their killing spree.

According to Duterte, there are now fewer New People’s Army (NPA) activities taking place since the creation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and its regional task forces to address armed conflicts at the local level.

Duterte acknowledged that CPP-NPA continues to perpetuate violence by killing soldiers, police, and civilians in the country, but on “a very small scale” this time.

“There has been really quite a reduction of the NPA activities. They are in Mindanao but limited to Northern Mindanao including Davao City. May mga dalawa nalang o almost pawala na. At sana naman ganun ang mangyari sa ibang regions (There are just two or almost none. And I hope it will also happen in other regions), I said, because violence is really despicable to me,” he said in a speech in Lucena City.

Because of this, he said the national government is “winning” the war against the communist insurgency in the country.

On December 2, Duterte said the slashed budget of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) should be restored and called on voters to replace senators who cut the agency's budget.

Congress set the 2022 NTF-ELCAC budget at PHP17.1 billion or PHP10.8 billion lower compared to the PHP28.1 billion proposed by Malacañang.

West Philippine Sea

Following the presence of over 200 Chinese vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) from March to April this year, Duterte maintained a friendly stance with China, but noted that the country’s sovereign rights over the disputed sea would not be compromised, even if the regional superpower is the country’s “friend.”

In a speech on April 28, Duterte chided the past administration’s alleged negligence to act on China’s activities in the strategic waters.

The WPS issue became a recurring topic in his regular public addresses with Duterte inviting former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to discuss issues concerning the highly-contested sea in May.

Duterte ordered his Cabinet members, except then Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, to speak on topics related to the WPS.

He also raised questions over the role of former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV about his supposed role as the country's back-channel negotiator between the Philippines and China during the standoff at Ayungin Shoal.

On September 22, Duterte stressed the importance of the Philippines’ historic arbitral victory against China’s sweeping maritime claims in the WPS during his virtual participation in the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

“No amount of willful disregard by any country, however big and powerful, can diminish the arbitral award’s importance,” he said.

Duterte slammed the November 16 incident where Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked and fired water cannons on two Philippine boats transporting supplies to military personnel in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in a speech during his virtual participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)-China Special Summit on November 22, saying the incident “does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership”.

Political plans

On September 8, the ruling Partido ng Demokratikong Pilipino-Laban (PDP-Laban) officially proclaimed Duterte as its vice presidential candidate and Senator Christopher Lawrence Go as its presidential candidate.

Duterte accepted his nomination on September 23, saying he agreed to heed “the clamor of the people”.

As early as August, he has floated the possibility of joining the 2022 vice presidential race to continue his administration’s relentless fight against illegal drugs, criminality, and insurgency.

Duterte, however, said he would let the Filipino voters decide on his fate, as he seeks the vice presidency.

He later surprised many when he filed on November 15 his certificate of candidacy (COC) for senator, instead.

He later changed his mind yet again and withdrew his COC after Go officially pulled out his candidacy earlier on the same day. They earlier filed their candidacies under Dugong Dakilang Samahan (PDDS), an allied party of PDP-Laban.

The Palace said Duterte’s decision would allow him to better focus on managing the country’s pandemic response and ensure “peaceful, transparent, and fair” national and local elections in May 2022.

After spending four decades of his life in public service, Duterte said he wanted to retire from politics to enjoy the privileges of being a private citizen and spend more time with his family.

Duterte’s past five years allowed him to leave a mark as one of, if not the most unpredictable presidents in the country.

Despite being hounded by issues, his man-of-the-people style leadership continued to allow him to enjoy the high trust and confidence of the people according to surveys. (PNA)