October 20, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Public catches glimpse of road ahead

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte has asked Congress for a long list of items in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), vowing he would step down even before the end of his term once lawmakers approve the shift to a federal system of government.

Save for the move to propose his legislative agenda before lawmakers -- a yearly tradition -- Mr. Duterte’s first SONA was non-traditional: he wore a barong with rolled-up sleeves and deviated from what was supposed to be a half-hour speech to unspool anecdotes, joking about his sleeping teleprompter and telling a laughing audience to listen.

In his first annual report to the nation that lasted instead for about an hour-and-a-half, the president tackled issues big -- federalism, the peace process, traffic, the anti-drug war, climate change -- and small -- drivers’ licenses and passports.

He mentioned China and the territorial row with it only in passing.

   [READ: Key quotes from Duterte's speech]

Mr. Duterte, who said he once was reluctant to be president, sold optimism that he might have the numbers to get the vote to shift to a federal system.

He was flanked at the dais by Davao del Norte Rep. Pantaleon D. Alvarez -- who was elected yesterday by an overwhelming majority as House Speaker of the 17th Congress -- and by Sen. Aquilino “Koko” L. Pimentel, now Senate president. Both are his party mates from the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban ng Bayan.

“You realize that the three guys at the elevated portion of Congress are from Mindanao so wala akong masabi,” he told lawmakers.

Eh nanalo ako eh. Di ko nga alam bakit ako nandito. Totoo naman, sino ba nagsuporta sa akin sa inyo? (I won. I really don’t know why I am here. In fact, who among you supported me?) If you hurry up the federal system of government by the fourth [or] fifth year, you call for a referendum and after that call for a presidential election, I will go. Sibat na ako.”

He sought the swift passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law “minus the constitutional issues that are contentious” then “when federalism comes, isali mo na sa package together with [Nur] Misuari,” referring to the founder of the Moro National Liberation Front.

The president invoked a chorus of hope about lasting peace in Mindanao -- the island he came from -- and announcing a “unilateral” ceasefire with the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-National People’s Army “effective immediately”.

With a forceful tone, Mr. Duterte spoke on issues close to his heart -- crime and drugs -- but barely elaborated on issues that businessmen earlier expected -- concrete details about his 10-point economic agenda -- as he mumbled words and told his prompter to skip several portions of his SONA.

But he did lay out a plan to ease Metro Manila’s congested roads and airports, suggesting to Congress that he be given emergency powers -- something his transportation chief earlier proposed and would entail opening subdivisions to traffic. “Nakita namin kung gusto nyo madalian… sagad na eh… It’s an urgent and immediate solution. Kung gusto nyo, madaling ibigay,” Mr. Duterte said.

Other business-friendly measures cited in his SONA were cutting corporate and personal income taxes, decongesting the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and pushing for industrialization even as the Duterte administration will join the fight against global warming. “It must not stymie our industrialization,” Mr. Duterte clarified.

He took a jab at private owners of jets, threatening they will be moved to Batanes, while saying a new runway can be built at the former US naval base at Sangley Point in Cavite City and a railway to the former US airbase at Clark International Airport in Pampanga.

Mr. Duterte also took on critics of Environment Secretary Regina Paz L. Lopez, saying that he and the anti-mining advocate just wanted miners to “follow government standards.” “Gina Lopez is doing her job. She’s really a crusader. Kaya tama ‘yan (She is doing the right thing),” he said impromptu, before going back to his prepared script to say that the Environment department “if warranted” can amend, suspend or revoke mining permits.

The president also addressed issues close to consumers, extending the operating hours of Manila’s elevated railways by an hour more to 10:30 p.m., lengthening the validity of the passport to 10 years from the current five years, and the drivers’ license, to five years from three now.

In his speech, Mr. Duterte wasted no time “fingerpointing” and “blaming those who are perceived to be responsible for the mess we are suffering from,” but he took veiled shots at his critics.

“I wish to assure everyone that vindictiveness is not in my system,” Mr. Duterte said, adding that his government “does not condone violence and oppression against the media,” still fresh from criticisms over his earlier pronouncements about media killings, wolfwhistling a female journalist and banning media from key presidential events like the presidential inauguration.

In words specifically addressed to journalists, Mr. Duterte said: “Kayong mga media naghahanap kayo (You media always ask:) ‘where’s the big fish’.”

“The drug lords that you desperately want to strangle are not here,” he said.

“It will take entire resources of government to fight this war.”