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No wild cards

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President Duterte expressed the desire to terminate the services of barangay officials and replace them with appointees. The appointees were to be selected from short lists submitted by representatives of the religious, NGOs and other people’s organizations.

The matter has since been the subject of debate among legal experts on whether it is at all possible to do this. Rep. Ace Barbers filed a bill in the House of Representatives seeking to enable the President to terminate barangay officials and replace them with appointees. The bill will, without doubt, attract intense legislative discussion.

There was more than an ounce of exasperation on the part of the President when he proposed what he did.

On the one hand, he was fully aware the proposal tests the grey areas of constitutionality. On the other hand, the President is fully aware a large number of barangay officials are under the influence of the illicit drug networks. Many of them were elected to their posts with financial help coming from the peddlers.

Our smallest political unit is also the largest beachhead of narcopolitics in our country. There are several reasons for this. The barangay is the easiest political unit to influence with money. It is also the frontline in any campaign against the use of illegal drugs. When the barangay leadership is co-opted, it is much easier for the drug dealer to do their thing.

The barangay, however, is also the frontline in the war on drugs. The President, who often quotes the figure of “40-percent drug-corrupted barangay officials,” knows that if the frontline fails, everything fails.

The President knows he cannot win the war on drugs with an unreliable frontline. The barangay officials, more than the police, are aware of everything that goes on in the community. They know who does what. The drug users who surrendered in droves in the first months of the campaign surrendered to barangay officials who are, in principle, supervising these drug users.

If the barangay leaders are as tainted by the drug cartels as the President suspects, then he has wild cards composing his frontline. They may turn one way or the other. They could throw the proverbial monkey wrench on police operations and make the larger task of rehabilitation unworkable.

This is a gut-wrenching dilemma for the President. Dismissing the contaminated officials and replacing them with handpicked appointees is really the most practical solution. This is the only way to achieve results earlier and improve the results of the war against drugs. Another round of elections will likely only strengthen the grip of the drug cartel.

Those who have made a cottage industry out of criticizing the President’s every move impute a political motive for the proposal to cleanse the barangay leadership. They warn against “creeping authoritarianism” and, in total abstraction, claim that cleansing the barangay leadership of bad eggs undermines our democracy.

But even the President’s worst critics concede his intense focus on the war on drugs. In fact, they have asked him to show the same passionate commitment on other policy areas such as the economy. Over the past few days, from so many quarters, we have heard a rising demand for the President to exhibit the same intensity and willingness to spend political capital in trying to get the comprehensive tax reform package passed.

Right now, it is winning the war on drugs, and not some desire to seize more power for himself, that defines the President’s policy stances. If he floats the idea of sacking barangay officials suspected of aiding the spread of narcotics in our communities, consistency dictates that we attribute that to his singular focus on crushing the threat posed by widespread drug use.

Enough of this predictable refrain about “creeping authoritarianism.” The President does not lust for more power. He simply wants drug use curbed and the peddlers of illegal substances thrown in jail. -----Martin Andanar is chief of the Presidential Communications Operations Office




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