‘Dolomite populism’

By: Richard Heydarian - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | November 17,2020 - 09:00 AM

Among nations long accustomed to misgovernance, where political cynicism is a treasured pastime, former leaders are often remembered for their brazen mishaps and tragic failings. This is especially true in a country like the Philippines, where nostalgia for a supposed “golden” past is also a favorite distraction from the infamies of contemporary politics. The Guinness Book of World Records has enough to say about the kleptocratic legacy of the Marcos dictatorship, despite the tragicomic delusions of its stubborn partisans. But his more democratic successors, too, haven’t fared too well in the annals of history.

Think of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is most remembered for the “Hello, Garci” controversy, which only exposed the rotten nature of electoral politics. The populist Joseph Estrada, on the other hand, will likely go down in history as the man who lost power and immense popularity due to incorrigible vices.

Despite their contributions to the restoration of formal democracy, the Aquinos are also remembered for the tragedies in Hacienda Luisita and Mamasapano.

As for Fidel Ramos, who ably revitalized our economy and decisively forced coup-plotting soldiers back to the barracks, serial kidnapping incidents and the Asian financial crisis dented his hopes of becoming our own version of Mahathir Mohamad or Lee Kuan Yew.

But what about President Duterte, who may be popular while in power but whose legacy is still under question?

The Dutertenomics “Build, build, build” infrastructure initiative has been hounded by delays, anomalies, and a litany of shelved projects, including the trans-Mindanao railway project.

By all indications, China seems to have taken the former mayor for a ride, since one struggles to pinpoint a single big-ticket and high-quality infrastructure project by the Asian powerhouse.

In terms of the country’s overall growth trajectory, the International Monetary Fund has warned that the Philippine economy is the worst-hit in the world, thanks partly to excessively strict and prolonged lockdowns. If only decisive measures were taken much earlier, as in Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea, we could have avoided both a massive COVID-19 outbreak and total economic crisis.

As for the President’s drug war, its efficacy remains doubtful at best. How many real “big fish” have been brought to justice? Has there been a sustainable decline in the distribution and consumption of illegal drugs?

For some reason, which I think most of us know deep in our hearts, reports of thousands of extrajudicial killings have been met with either passive acceptance or open support by countless folk. There has been no Edsa-like revolt, not even close, against the widespread murders of ordinary citizens. I still struggle to understand emotionally many supposedly kind and well-educated people who have cheered on the slaughter of the poor and the defenseless in the name of some imaginary, if not self-centered, sense of “personal security.”

For years to come, many will try to figure out this bloody episode in our history with a mixture of horror, perplexity, and dread.

To put things into perspective, post-Soviet Poland has been gripped by weeks-long nationwide protests following the imposition of new restrictions on abortion. In a nation with even fewer years of democratic experience than ours, hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens have openly challenged the right-wing populist leadership in Warsaw.

For all its assaults on human rights and democratic norms, Mr. Duterte’s presidency will likely be remembered for a less macabre yet tragicomic episode: the fake “white sand” beach in Manila Bay, thanks to pulverized dolomite and a knack for performative governance.

When our world-class marine scientists questioned the project’s environmental sustainability, a top official dismissed them as paid hacks (“bayaran”). When netizens questioned its fiscal wisdom amid a nationwide crisis, another top official was quick to downplay the expenditure from P389 million to supposedly just tens of millions.

When both the science and economics didn’t add up, Malacañang said it’s about “the people’s mental health.” When Manila was hit by Typhoon “Ulysses,” the worst storm in more than a decade, a top official made time to visit the dolomite beach to boast: “Dolomite lang ang matatag (Only dolomite is unshakable).”

Meanwhile, indispensable programs such as Project Noah, which aimed to prepare us for predictably devastating storms, were cast aside.

Climate change is real, with the Philippines consistently ranking among the most vulnerable nations on earth. What we desperately need beyond resilience is proactive governance, not performative “dolomite populism.”

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