Heightened contradictions: Duterte and local autonomy in the era of COVID-19

In the Philippines, the government’s Social Amelioration Program (SAP) — designed to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—provided a conducive terrain for the country’s deeply embedded patronage politics that characterise its central-local and political-bureaucratic relations. Notably, the tug of war over SAP across these structures brings about heightened contradictions in the President’s position on the issue of local autonomy, which seem to betray an intention to consolidate power.
The SAP was introduced as an emergency subsidy program, which includes cash and in-kind aid amounting to P5000-8000 per household per month (depending on the minimum wage in the region) for two months. This is among the key provisions of the ‘Bayanihan to Heal as One Act’ (Republic Act No. 11469 signed on March 25), which allotted P200-billion worth of aid for 18 million poor and distressed families and disadvantaged sectors in the country. (Bayanihan is an indigenous Filipino custom of mutual help and getting together to execute a job for the common good).

At the program inception, President Duterte—who projects himself as a strong advocate for devolution and federalism—announced that he was tasking the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) with the distribution of the assistance “to prevent local officials from using the program for political ends” noting that some local politicians abuse the release of assistance for patronage politics.  This comes after the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) issued a warning to local government units (LGUs) about injecting politics into relief distribution amid national calamity. DILG cited early reports of some barangay (village or ward) officials being “selective in their distribution of relief goods, requiring the presentation of voter’s IDs or prioritizing friends and relatives”.

LGU involvement in SAP was subsequently limited to identifying beneficiaries in coordination with the DSWD. Their role in distributing relief is closely monitored by the DILG, alongside the police and the military. In principle, the master list of beneficiaries should accord with guidelines set by DSWD, which then conducts a validation 15 days after the transfer of funds to LGUs. Finally, these are audited by the Commission on Audit.  The DILG directed LGUs to fully disclose the list, warning them that cash aid released to unqualified beneficiaries will have to be paid back.

Ensuing political dynamics, however, put into question the Executive’s motives in asserting control over SAP, and other donations, under the pretext of encouraging non-political means of dispensation, especially when the President simply announced that, “people who go hungry should go to their barangay captains.”  Duterte’s assertions betray an intention to effectively monopolize patronage resources, direct citizen gratitude to the Palace as the ultimate patron, and yet deflect accountability to the local level when problems occur.

Amid escalating tensions and public complaints about the slow or non-delivery of financial aid under SAP, LGUs rejected blame and threats from communities angered by DSWD lapses in the identification and validation of beneficiary lists. Several LGUs faulted the national agency for its red tape, fragmented guidelines, vague information and lack of clarity in task allocation.  Other local officials have also griped about the ‘quota system’ imposed by the central government.  Under the system, each municipality or city is given a fixed amount based on Department of Finance data from the 2015 census, so the number of listed beneficiaries was far smaller than those who qualified to receive the cash assistance. The LGUs lamented the additional burden in covering assistance to other poor constituents not included in the DSWD list.

The DSWD, for its part, noted that SAP resources are meant mainly to augment locally-funded relief,  and urged LGUs to source their own funds.  The DILG also pointed out that, through Department of Budget and Management and DILG Joint Memorandum Circular No. 2020-001, the LGUs were given greater flexibility to utilise their 20% development fund (amounting to about P130 billion) for COVID-19 related initiatives, including food assistance and relief goods for affected households.

The case for the bureaucratisation of SAP is certainly well justified, particularly as it involves control over material resources ripe for patronage. After all, much of local capacity building can be incentivised from objective standards set from institutionalised central structures, particularly considering the uneven capabilities of diverse LGUs. While there are stellar LGUs who made headlines for their pro-active initiatives many others perform abysmally. The DSWD warned some LGUs about “ghost beneficiaries” where local officials allegedly use the names of dead beneficiaries to siphon cash assistance. Meanwhile, the DILG has ordered police investigations into reported anomalies in the distribution of cash aid. For communities and citizen-watch groups that want to ensure the accountability of local officials, these checking mechanisms are welcome.

However, the strained relations between central bureaucratic agencies and LGUs over SAP reflect underlying tensions in bureaucratic versus political logics. The preponderance of political voices in local governance demonstrates the deficiency of central bureaucratic machinery in the localities. Central bureaucratic agencies have to rely on LGUs, which are highly politicized structures, to deliver a supposedly depoliticized program. This then requires direct supervision (or policing) of local political officials by central bureaucratic agencies. This readily becomes contentious and conflated with local autonomy issues, especially when viewed in the framework of subsidiarity in service delivery.

But the tension between bureaucratic and political logics is readily apparent at the national level as well. This was demonstrated when President Duterte signed Administrative Order 27, a directive on a centralized distribution of donated medical supplies and equipment. It designated the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) as the main coordinating body for all donations to the government intended for COVID-19 response. The presidential office had to defend Senator Christopher “Bong” Go—Duterte’s former special assistant and trusted ally—against allegations that he was involved in the operations of the OCD, and in manipulating the release of donations to take credit and build his reputation ahead of the 2022 presidential elections. Go also had to deny accusations that medical goods were distributed in Malasakit Centers—one-stop shops located in health facilities for medical and financial assistance to indigent patients—a pet initiative of Go.

Rodrigo Duterte’s war on COVID-19 is a war on the Filipino people

Reports emerging of anti-communist attacks in cities and rural areas, arrests of activists and union members, and military action in spite of a declared ceasefire.

Fuelling speculation, the Executive has approved a one-time “Bayanihan” financial assistance to provincial LGUs equivalent to half of their respective one-month Internal Revenue Allotment as additional funding for their response against the COVID-19 crisis. This ad hoc initiative—advanced by Go—is seen as a strategy to use the emergency money to capture the loyalties of provincial governors. Go is a member of the joint congressional oversight committee overseeing the implementation of the ‘Bayanihan to Heal as One Act.’ This seemed to validate the earlier joint statement released by senators from the minority bloc, of certain politicians exploiting the crisis to advance their political ambitions for the 2022 presidential campaign.

Amidst these allegations, the DILG and other national government agencies are notably silent. With an evident lack of countervailing bureaucratic autonomy, it is convenient for the Executive to leverage central administrative agencies to mobilise resources toward central political channels. This undermines the creation of a social welfare system based on more technical, universalistic criteria. Thus, one can observe a major contradiction in the behaviour of central bureaucratic agencies, as they denounce patronage politics as practiced by local politicians but have nothing to say about similar—and indeed larger scale—practices by national-level politicians close to the administration. When central political actors seem disinclined to follow appropriate bureaucratic practices, it is quite hypocritical for them to try to prevent local politicians from using resources to advance their own patronage goals.

The Inter-Agency Task Force issued a directive (Resolution No. 25) to adopt a “national-government-enabled, local government-led, and people-centred response”  to the COVID-19 pandemic, in recognition of the proactive campaigns and initiatives of LGUs. It has tasked LGUs along with the DILG to lead the government’s contact-tracing efforts, previously assigned to the OCD. Yet, as an implementing mechanism, the DILG’s Memorandum Circular (No. 2020-073) states that the “Contact Tracing Teams per LGU are to be led by the chief of the Philippine National Police and assisted by the City or Municipal Health Officer together with the Bureau of Fire Protection, local disaster risk reduction and management offices and the barangay health emergency response teams.”  Most recently, the DSWD announced that the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines will lead the distribution of the second tranche of the cash aid, instead of the LGUs. This begs the question: why is there such a strong role for the police and military relative to the civilian agencies of the national government?

All this puts into question the President’s motives when it comes to intergovernmental sharing of powers. If anything, the SAP, the Administrative Order 27, and the Executive’s ad hoc provision on the “Bayanihan” financial assistance for provinces recall former President Marcos’ strategy of using the Presidential Assistant for Community Development as “a well-tuned vehicle for presidential intervention in local politics” funnelling money down to the local level through non-regular channels, with the Palace claiming the credit for the patronage it dispensed. These indicate an intention not so much to prevent resources from being used for patronage politics by LGUs, as to perpetuate local politicians’ dependence on patronage flows from the centre.

Ultimately, what is notable in the political dynamics amid the crisis is the Executive’s patent intention to consolidate power within his administration by heightening a fundamental contradiction: rhetorical support for local autonomy combined with what has in practice been expanded attempts by the Palace to exert its control over local governments. On the one hand, there have been the public pronouncements in favour of “federalism/local autonomy with a strong Presidency”; on the other hand, there are many ways in which local autonomy is being curbed in practice including via intimidation. The end result is a politics of heightened contradictions.

Armed with a license for emergency powers, Duterte has been bold in warning LGUs to “stand down” as he asserts national control within a state of emergency.  The Executive deploys the existential threat of COVID-19 to effectively control LGUs through  “show cause orders” issued by the DILG against local officials for “actions violating quarantine policies.” Alleged anomalies become immediate justification to order the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation to “probe and arrest corrupt local officials,” with the President offering P30,000 reward to any person who can give information.

Yet in a paradoxical move, the DILG hatched a plan to pursue its directive to its regional offices to gather two million signatures via online signature campaign to back constitutional amendments, which included provisions for expansion of internal revenue allotments for LGUs and advancement of regional development. While this plan has seemingly since been abandoned after being roundly criticised, it nonetheless reflects the powerful contradiction between promotion of local autonomy and efforts by the Palace to exert greater control over local officials throughout the archipelago.

The complex contradictions between central and local government structures in the Philippines are longstanding, characterized by ever-shifting political dynamics across electoral cycles. However, local politicians are fast realizing that under this regime, the Executive is effectively overwhelming their bargaining position, in a masterful play of using its very inconsistency to quell any attempt at posing a coherent counter-assertion. This COVID-19 crisis may have just created the perfect terrain of chaos for Duterte to further ramp up his politics of contradiction, which have so far served him well in maintaining and consolidating his political power.

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