The Manila Times - President Duterte should focus on strengthening institutions

19 July 2020

By The Manila Times

The next State of the Nation Address (SONA) will be reduced to the very essence of what it should be — a message from the President. Given the need for physical distancing during the pandemic, President Rodrigo Duterte will likely deliver his SONA virtually. We welcome the absence of pageantry, actually. We would be more interested in hearing about plans to strengthen institutions that can cement the changes in place and mark the starting point in moving forward.

Last week, for example, President Duterte said in a speech that he had dismantled the oligarchy without declaring martial law. He did not name names, but it seems that oligarchs are still among us, just lying low for now. But even if the President is right, what now?

History reminds us that the fall of old oligarchs is often followed by the rise of new oligarchs. Again, the solution is to build stronger institutions that can last beyond any single six-year term.

On another issue, President Duterte will be remembered for his war against illegal drugs.

The drug syndicates may have suffered setbacks, but obviously, their illicit business continues to thrive. What happens after 2022 when the President presumably returns to Davao City?

The present anti-drug campaign could have lasting effect if law enforcement institutions were stronger and more capable. Issuing new sidearms was a good start, but increasingly, criminals operate in the digital world. There should be a modernization program for the national police and other law enforcement agencies, like the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and, of course, the National Bureau of Investigation. They could be more effective when trained and equipped with new technology and modern science.

There are also the courts that are in need of capacity building. And with regard to the anti-drug campaign, the President could make a case for designating or creating special courts to handle crimes involving illicit drugs. Of course, the entire judicial system could also use more judges, support personnel and courtrooms.

Plus, there should be a public-education campaign for the youth and others in society. Drug education in the school curriculum should be reviewed and enhanced. And the messaging can be reinforced with an information campaign that dispels the recreational nature of drugs and highlights the health threats and social costs.

Election reform now

The programs suggested above will need to continue in the terms of the next several presidents, if they are to have a longer-lasting effect. But there is one reform that President Duterte can complete before finishing his tenure — make elections more credible.

To do that, President Duterte can use his influence to ditch Smartmatic, whose counting machines have been at the center of controversies in past elections. The problem with Smartmatic is the lack of transparency in counting and tallying votes. Some have even accused that its machines enable wholesale voter fraud.

President Duterte himself had echoed some of the concerns of electoral reformers. We hope that he will now back up those words with action.

Those who argue for the retention of Smartmatic machines flout their processing speed. Of course, no one wants to return to the old days when it took weeks, if not months, to count and tally the votes — not even those recommending manual voting.

The alternative that merits the President’s attention is a hybrid system. That would entail manual voting, which should be completed and counted within 24 hours, and computerized canvassing that could operate as fast, if not faster, than the dated Smartmatic equipment.

The point about manual voting is transparency. In precincts, there are far too many election watchers and other witnesses to tamper with the vote count. Plus, work at the precinct level could be accelerated when unbundled. Remember that precincts were clustered to limit the number of machines purchased.

Besides, vote canvassing has always been the slowest part of the process, even with Smartmatic. Thus, canvassing should remain computerized to preserve or, perhaps, even enhance the speed of collating and tallying the votes.

Of course, this editorial is only a wish list. But if President Duterte can mention these things in his upcoming address, then his SONA might be truly meaningful.