For Duterte reformers, lessons from the Erap years
“I could see more and more on a larger scale that this guy had absolutely no respect for institutions, had no understanding of what policy meant, had no appreciation of planning and was running (the country) like a small town.”
The person being referred to was a president of the Philippines.
No, it was not Rody Duterte. The “guy” in the quote was Joseph Estrada.
Erap was overthrown just a few weeks after Karina David, the academic activist who served as his housing czar, described to me her tumultuous stint as a member of Erap’s team.
Erap was like Duterte in many ways: a popular tough-talking maverick with a macho swagger who presented himself as a man of the masses.
Erap won the support of many well-known activist social reformers like David and former rebels, Horacio Morales and Edicio de la Torre.
And so has Duterte.
In fact, the progressives on Digong’s team, some of them respected veterans of the fight against the Marcos dictatorship — led by Cabinet Secretary Jun Evasco and Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo — are considered one of the hopeful signs that the Duterte era could be a period of meaningful reforms.
That certainly was the hope during the first six months of the Erap presidency in 1998. It was a time of optimism when the country appeared to have a president who was serious about addressing issues of poverty and social injustice.
“The first six months were to me inspiring,” David told me.
Edicio de la Torre, the former rebel priest and political prisoner, was also optimistic about Erap’s commitment to genuine social reform.
“Erap, although he is not poor, is comfortable with the poor,” he told me shortly before the 1998 election. “It’s not a put-on. Over the years, he has so internalized it that the actor has lived the role . . .
“And he is open to that role because of a combination of history, image, plus, in this case, good acting.”
Karina David had an important mandate as part of Erap’s team: to create government-subsidized homes for the poor in urban communities and the barrios.
“Erap gave us everything we needed,” she told me. “It was exciting. It was intellectually challenging.”
Well, eventually Erap’s reign became challenging in other ways.
David quit after growing frustrated with what she called a chaotic administration. Erap’s government eventually collapsed in the 2001 uprising amid charges of corruption and abuse of power.
Fast forward 15 years.
Duterte’s first three months will be remembered as the bloodiest of any presidency. And the most controversial.
Still, the progressive activists who presumably will play key roles in Duterte’s much-hyped social reform agenda are still there.
Like some of my Duterte-supporting friends, they apparently are still hopeful that the despite the bloodbath and the increasingly incoherent policy pronouncements, change is coming.
In any case, the Duterte reformers should consider Edicio dela Torre’s reflections on what happened to activist reformers like him during the Erap years.
“Any activist who joins any existing government has to know that activists, reformers in general, are a minority in the current system,” he told me recently. “So they have to calculate the limitations and not overreach themselves, and at the same time build alliances to push for reforms that may be beyond their immediate power to achieve.”
He stressed one important advice: Push for reforms immediately.
Referring to Horacio Morales, dela Torre added: “BM and I initially thought that we would move to push more reforms in the second half of Erap’s presidency, thinking that the traditional first half would have a lot of accommodations and the second half would make him more open to legacy.”
That turned out to be a mistake. Erap only lasted two years.
Dela Torre added: “My lesson is that the first half is as important, if not more, because of higher expectations.”
In Duterte’s case, the first half is clearly turning out to be extremely important as Digong builds a troubling, frightening legacy.
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