What’s behind Duterte’s antipathy towards casinos

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In the wake of the recent decision to ban all casinos on Boracay and the controversy surrounding Landing International’s licence for its Manila IR, President Duterte’s flip-flopping on the casino industry can’t be doing wonders for investor confidence suggests Edward Lowton.

It’s hard to get a handle on the Philippine president’s Rodrigo Duterte’s position when it comes to the casino industry, all the more so due to his inconsistent approach towards gambling in general.

When he took office back in 2016, Duterte quickly moved to crack down on the iGaming industry, declaring war on online gambling shortly after being sworn in on 30 June. The decision saw the closure of hundreds of eGames parlours across the Southeast Asian island nation. “Online gambling must stop. It has sprouted here and there. This is out of control,” the president asserted.

It must be conceded that there are a number of issues surrounding gambling in the Philippines, such as the proliferation of jueteng, an illegal numbers game.

But, therein lies the rub. Duterte was recently criticised by senator Panfilo Lacson – formerly chief of the Philippine National Police from 1999 to 2001 – for failing to crackdown on jueteng.

Despite being characteristically gnomic, the president’s response was revealing. “If there’s jueteng … at least money goes around. Some people will get hungry, others will be able to eat, [but] there’s commercial activity.”

On a similar note, last year, self-confessed Davao Death Squad leader Arturo Lascañas claimed Duterte tolerated the illegal numbers game Last Two during his two decade term as Davao City mayor, while simultaneously carrying out his war on drugs and crime.

So if Duterte grudgingly acknowledges the economic benefits of gambling, then what’s the problem when it comes to casino resort expansion in the Philippines?

While last December he was photographed smiling during a meeting with Galaxy Entertainment executives regarding the company’s planned $500m integrated resort on Boracay, fast forwarding round to August this position has shifted dramatically, with Duterte denying the meeting ever took place.

“I will not allow gambling. I’m not issuing any franchise for gambling in the entire Philippines now. It’s a moratorium. I don’t like it. I hate gambling,” Duterte declared in speech on 21 August.

Meanwhile the national regulator appears to want to take a more neutral line. Back in March 2017, Pagcor chief Andrea Domingo announced that there would be a five year moratorium on further casino licences in Metro Manila, reportedly following requests by integrated casino resort operators.

“We listened to the people who were here, who took a risk when there was no one else here,” Domingo explained. “We listen to our investors, they asked us to give a five-year breathing space.”

The moratorium was reportedly also influenced by president Duterte’s policy goal of promoting business outside Manila.

“Cebu is the second largest metropolis in our country,” Domingo explained. “There are cities there near the airport where the local governments welcome casinos.

Nevertheless, the following February, Pagcor stated that it would no longer accept new casino license applications for anywhere in the Philippine until the casino industry matures.

Domingo clarified that her office planned to implement a policy limiting the number of casinos to one per city or per province. “I think one per big city or one per big province is enough.”

Given this, Landing International Development’s desire to push ahead with casino project in the capital region may always have been a long shot.

Especially since in doing so the company has incurred the ire of the president’s niece, Maria Fema Duterte, a member of the board of the state-owned Nayong Pilipino Foundation with which Landing signed its land lease contract for the $1.5bn NayonLanding development.

But this doesn’t explain what’s behind Duterte’s about face on permitting casinos on Boracay, especially given that Galaxy and its local partner Leisure and Resorts World clearly considered the project a done deal.

Populism could be one possible motive, especially in light of negative media reports regarding casino expansion on Boracay and Duterte’s subsequent decision to “give it to the people,” and declare the island an agrarian reform area.

In his 1938 non-fiction book, Winston Churchill wrote the famous quote, “Dictators ride to and fro on tigers from which they dare not dismount.”

Duterte has yet to serve a full term, and it would be precipitous to describe him as a dictator. All the same his populist position means he – in the words of progressive think tank, The Transnational Institute – “derives his or her strength from a heated multiclass mass base”.

In light of this, he’s likely to be leery of anything that could alienate the electorate, while headlines such as “Two huge casinos in Boracay? Are they crazy?”; “How will two new casinos help Boracay’s environmental crisis?”; and “Fisher folk question casino construction in Boracay”, perhaps provoking the president’s latest bout of anti-casino sentiment.

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