Governance in a time of complexity

The one thing, I think, President Duterte is learning in the seven months he has been in office is that the government will not instantaneously abide by everything he says whenever he speaks. His officials will increasingly insist that presidential instructions, particularly those that could be questioned on legal and constitutional grounds, be put in writing.

The national government is not only larger than the city government of Davao. It is also far more complex, and more functionally differentiated in its operations.  Unlike the comprehensive power and influence Mayor Duterte wielded as Davao City chief, state authority is not a monopoly of the president. It is, rather, disaggregated and assigned to various departments and agencies, all of which have mandates defined by law.

All this should be of common knowledge, especially to the President, who is a lawyer. But, he often seems unaware of the functional limits that define his role as the nation’s chief executive. Given his penchant to speak freely on a wide range of issues without the benefit of a script, it has not been easy for his Cabinet to tell when he is enunciating a policy shift or merely thinking aloud.

A few examples might illustrate this problem. Mr. Duterte recently instructed the chief of the Armed Forces to take the lead in arresting rogue policemen who have committed crimes under the cover of the campaign against illegal drugs. The AFP chief has correctly asked for a written order specifying its parameters. Not only is this assignment not part of the usual function of the military, it could also trigger a firefight between policemen and soldiers.

The other day, the President told an audience in North Cotabato that he was recalling the government ceasefire he had unilaterally declared at the start of his term to jump-start the peace talks with the CPP-NPA. He was reacting to the recent killing and abduction of soldiers by the New People’s Army. The NPA earlier announced the withdrawal of its own ceasefire, effective Feb. 10. “I tried my best,” Mr. Duterte said, “but I guess it wasn’t good enough… There will be no peace in this land vis-à-vis the Communist Party. Ipagpatuloy natin ang giyera.” (Let’s resume the war.)

The announcement has left the ongoing peace negotiations in limbo. Before this, the talks had been moving toward a firmer joint ceasefire declaration. The communist rebels demanded, as a condition for the bilateral ceasefire agreement, the release of some 400 of their comrades being held in government custody. Having previously freed top leaders of the armed communist movement to enable them to participate in the peace negotiations, the President balked at the idea. He could not ignore the military’s staunch objection to this new demand.

A third example is Environment Secretary Gina Lopez’s order to close 23 mining companies that have been found to have illegally encroached on watersheds.  To his credit, the President has made known that he was supporting Lopez’s position on this issue.  But another member of the Cabinet, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, has expressed strong reservations about the wisdom of this move, pointing to its negative impact on jobs and government revenues.

It is natural for departments of government to view policy questions through the prism of their respective mandates.  It is not always easy to reconcile the resulting policy differences, reflecting as they do the reality of competing norms and priorities. A wise president would thus be well advised to listen to his key officials before he speaks his mind.

We can cite further examples of the complexities of decision-making at the level of the president. Take the personal pivot to China that Mr. Duterte has repeatedly declared in the same breath he has expressed his antagonism toward America. This self-indulgent rhetoric has, understandably, yielded little by way of binding decisions.

Even a leader like Mr. Duterte who is given to speaking forcefully will have a hard time selling this idea to a nation that has known China only as a threat, and that has long felt secure in the military embrace of the United States. A quick look at the AFP as an organization will show how much it has been molded in the image of the US military. Moreover, it is not mere coincidence that the biggest segment of the Filipino diaspora is to be found in America. The heritage of pro-Americanism in this country is so deep and durable that one cannot expect to erase it overnight. But much can be done to loosen its grip on our institutions, even as we explore new friendships and enter into nontraditional alliances.

What a modern government cannot afford is to see its way through this complexity as though the issues were an either-or proposition. For example, that we must alienate America in order to befriend China. That the preservation of the national sovereignty requires ignoring the voice of the international community.  That we cannot win the war on drugs without violating human rights. That we cannot tap our mineral wealth without sacrificing our watersheds. That we must stop negotiating peace because active war has resumed.

Decision-making at the level of the national government has never been more complex. Modernity has brought about a sharp differentiation of functional spheres, testing the government’s capacity to integrate at the level of the nation-state. But, more than this, the government finds itself groping for solutions in the context of a global environment it does not control. This is the formidable challenge facing the former Davao City mayor who now sits in Malacañang.