Rodrigo Duterte: Predictable themes, unpredictable moves

Alexis Romero - Philstar.com
Rodrigo Duterte: Predictable themes, unpredictable moves
President Duterte at his State of the Nation Address in July 2016.
File photo

MANILA, Philippines -- Those who regularly monitor President Rodrigo Duterte’s activities will notice that there are four themes that are usually, if not always, present, in his long freewheeling and profanity-laced speeches.

He usually mentions his supposed humble origins and his ascent to power which, he attributes to destiny. The president often talks about his grandparents – his Maranao grandmother and Chinese grandfather – and his parents especially his mother Soledad who did not give up on him despite his shortcomings.

Another theme usually present in his speeches is the threat of terrorism and the need to talk peace with communist and Moro rebels. And he never forgets to remind his audience that the Moros had been in the Philippines years before Ferdinand Magellan and his men arrived in 1521.

Duterte also talks about corruption a lot, a problem that he said would be dealt with harshly. Included in this topic is his promise to cut red tape by requiring state agencies to complete their transactions in three days.

But the issue that he never fails to discuss in his speeches is the drug menace, a problem that he believes could jeopardize the next generation if left unchecked. The president passionately states his case about illegal drugs in nearly all his engagements – be they visits to military and police camps, business summits, oath-takings, or meetings of industry groups like banana growers.

The elements in Duterte’s speeches reflect the issues that he has had to confront during his first eight months in office. There are indications that he would have to deal with them until the last day of his six-year term, a term that might be cut short if a federal government is established and he fulfills his promise to step down once that is done.    

'A matter of destiny'

Duterte won the 2016 election by a landslide despite, or maybe because of, his unusual way of promoting himself. The foul-mouthed mayor from Davao City got 16.6 million votes or about 39 percent of total votes, beating his more experienced and moneyed rivals, some of them tasting electoral defeat for the first time.

For Duterte, his victory was a matter of destiny. His political party, the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan or PDP-Laban was, to use his word, “moribund” until he won the presidency.

He had very few supporters among local executives -- those he has mentioned include Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos, Bataan Gov. Albert Garcia and an unnamed governor from Mindanao, whom Duterte claimed was his ex-girlfriend. He also has not previously handled national positions, unlike his opponents who are household names in practically the entire country.

Duterte believes that messaging played a key role in his victory. He talked about eliminating corruption and destroying the narcotics trade, issues that struck a chord among ordinary voters.

More than 16 million voters found a new hope in Duterte -- and not even allegations of corruption, human rights violations and indecency could change their mind.

But despite his overwhelming victory during the presidential race, Duterte claimed that he has no illusions about power. He said he is ready to be impeached, ousted in a military-backed revolt or even assassinated if that is his destiny.

Rumors of alleged ouster plots against Duterte have surfaced even if has been in power for only a few months. Such rumors intensified when Vice President Leni Robredo, a member of the Liberal Party, resigned as Duterte’s housing chief after the president asked her to desist from attending Cabinet meetings.

The two parted ways supposedly because of “irreconcilable differences.”

The president himself confirmed recently that “yellows” or people associated with the previous administration and the political opposition want to remove him from office. There have been no rallies calling for him to resign although there were several protests in November against the burial of ousted former President Ferdinand Marcos' remains at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Malacañang officials claimed, though, that there is no need to conduct a loyalty check among the allies of Duterte, who incidentally visited more than a dozen military camps within the first few months of his term.

Duterte also took time to attend minor military and police events like the awarding ceremony of a golf tournament and the graduation rites of a motorcycle course. Some view it as Duterte’s way of earning the loyalty of his troops. Officials claim, though, that the president was boosting the morale of his troops who are on the front line of his war on illegal drugs.

Brutal war on drugs

To say that the crackdown on narcotics is the centerpiece program of the Duterte administration is an understatement.

After all, the drug menace is the dominant theme in nearly all of the president’s pronouncements, the root of practically all controversies he faced this year and partly the reason why he distanced himself from the United States, the Philippines’ longtime ally and treaty partner.

The problem, which he claims has contaminated close to four million Filipinos – a claim that critics believe is exaggerated and without factual basis – was also the cause of his verbal clashes with his critics here and abroad. 

The drug problem impelled Duterte to badmouth the US, the European Union, the United Nations and even the Catholic Church, all of whom have expressed concerns about the alleged extrajudicial killing of thousands of drug suspects.

Offended by what he viewed as interference with Philippine affairs, Duterte has accused them of hypocrisy, of embarrassing him before the international stage and of trivializing the dangers of illicit drug trade.

While Duterte claims that he neither endorses nor condones extralegal killings, he declared that he would not allow any policeman or soldier to go to jail over his drug clampdown.

Last December, the president said he would defend the policemen tagged in the killing of Albuera, Leyte Mayor Rolando Espinosa, one of the politicians accused of involvement in illegal drugs.

The National Bureau of Investigation had declared that the mayor was killed in a rubout inside his cell in Baybay City last month and not in a shootout as claimed by policemen. While he vowed not to obstruct the legal process, Duterte said he would believe in the statement of the policemen “even if it is not true” because he is their commander-in-chief.

The drug problem also prodded Duterte to warn Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno that he would declare martial law if the Supreme Court continues to meddle with his narcotics crackdown. He later on apologized to Sereno for the harsh words that he claimed were unintended.

The rampant drug trade also nudged Duterte to launch an unprecedented shame campaign against government officials allegedly involved in narcotics. The president has revealed the names of more than 160 local executives, lawmakers, judges and uniformed men who he said had ties with drug syndicates.

Duterte’s drug list was far from perfect, though, as it contained at least three dead people and three Pangasinan politicians whose alleged links to illegal drugs cannot be established.

The president apologized to former Pangasinan governor and now Rep. Amado Espino, Pangasinan Board Member Raul Sison and former Pangasinan provincial administrator Raffy Baraan but not to critics who accused him of subjecting people to a trial by publicity. 

The campaign against illegal drugs also turned Duterte into an unmasker or slut-shamer – depending on which side you are in – of Sen. Leila de Lima, his most vocal critic.

Duterte’s statement last August accusing de Lima of having an affair with her married driver who has alleged ties with drug lords led to several inquiries, fiery exchanges and even more accusations.

De Lima, who has been accused of receiving millions in campaign funds from drug lords, claimed that the president is just destroying her credibility because she has been critical of his anti-drug campaign. 

It has only been a few months since drug trafficking complaints were filed against de Lima but Duterte has already predicted that the neophyte senator will rot in jail. 

The drug menace also prodded the president to sign into law a measure postponing this year’s barangay elections to Oct. 23, 2017. According to him, drug lords would have influenced the outcome of the village election if it had pushed through last October 31.

Thousands of drug pushers and addicts have surrendered to authorities, prompting the government-funded tabloid Mula sa Masa, Para sa Masa (from the masses, for the masses) to declare that the president had already won the fight against illegal drugs.

The tabloid appeared to have declared victory too soon as Duterte himself has admitted that he could not fulfill his promise to suppress illegal drugs within the first six months of his term.

In a press briefing last September, the president asked the public to give him “a little extension of maybe another six months,” saying the problem cannot be solved overnight due to the sheer number of officials in the drug list.

Combating corruption

Unlike the drug problem, Duterte did not set timelines in addressing corruption, which he said is well entrenched in some state agencies. The president, however, promised to be harsh in dealing with erring officials and to be responsive to complaints of citizens who should benefit from every centavo of the taxes they paid.

During his first week in office, Duterte promised to conduct year-long lifestyle checks to ensure that government workers are living within their means. He also asked state workers to live frugally and to avoid “extra frills” or be humiliated and face prison.

To lessen opportunities for bribery, the president instructed frontline agencies to simplify their procedures and to shorten the processing time of documents to three days. He also signed a historic executive order on freedom of information but whether it would really open up access to documents detailing state transactions remains to be seen.

To prove that he really means business in terms of fighting corruption, he fired three Immigration officials – two of them his fellow Bedans and fraternity brothers – after they were dragged in a multimillion peso bribery scandal involving a Chinese online gaming tycoon.

He demanded the resignation of Energy Regulatory Commission commissioners after an official who was allegedly pressured to approve anomalous deals died in an apparent suicide. The president also asked some officials of the Anti-Money Laundering Council to quit their posts and accused them of “contributing to corruption” when they failed to produce documents detailing the bank transactions of suspected drug lords.

Duterte’s crusade against corruption and abusive practices has not been limited to state agencies.

In August, the president promised to “destroy” oligarchs or businessmen who peddle influence to protect their interests. He has so far attached the label to two businessmen: Jaime Ongpin, who was forced to sell his entire 53.76-percent stake in gaming firm PhilWeb after he was shamed by the president; and Eric Gutierrez, a mining company owner and supporter of defeated presidential candidate Manuel “Mar” Roxas II.

Duterte also promised to put an end to labor contractualization and threatened to shutter companies who refuse to give their workers the benefits they are entitled to under the law. He likewise ordered the closure of online gambling firms, saying they have not been remitting the proper amount of taxes to the government.

In a speech last December, Duterte promised to step down if any member of his family is proven to be involved in corruption. However, some sectors cast doubts on Duterte’s resolve to fight corruption when he allowed the burial of former president Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (heroes’ cemetery).

Groups opposed to the burial claimed that Duterte’s decision was tantamount to glorifying a dictator who condoned human rights violations and plundered the Philippine economy.

Despite the widespread protests condemning his decision, Duterte maintained that the burial would allow the country to move on from the divisive issue.

According to him, Marcos is qualified to be interred at the heroes’ cemetery as a former president and war veteran. The president admitted though that the issue on whether Marcos was a hero is not something that can be resolved immediately.

Peace talks and terror threats

Controversial decisions like allowing Marcos to be buried as a hero earned Duterte critics but his bold moves also enabled him to forge new alliances.   

To form an inclusive government, the president appointed people aligned with the political left to his cabinet including Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo and National Anti-Poverty Commission lead convenor Liza Maza.

He also freed several communist leaders facing criminal charges as a confidence-building measure for the resumption of the peace talks that collapsed in 2013.

The government and the communists are upbeat about the prospects of the talks although they encounter irritants every now and then, the latest of which is the disagreement over the release of more than 400 people that the rebels claimed to be political prisoners.

Admitting that he has conceded “too much too soon” to the communists, Duterte declared that he would no longer free rebel prisoners until a bilateral ceasefire is signed.

Duterte also vowed to forge a lasting political settlement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), groups that he said are not waging a rebellion but are fighting for Moro nationalism.

He also welcomed MNLF founder Nur Misuari in Malacañang last month and even broke protocols when he allowed the erstwhile fugitive to use the presidential podium, upsetting the families of the victims of the bloody 2013 Zamboanga siege.

Last November, Duterte signed Executive Order No. 8, which expanded the membership of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), the body that will draft the enabling law that will create a Bangsamoro government.

The commission has representatives from the MILF, MNLF, indigenous peoples, Mindanao sultanates, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, local governments and sectoral groups. Misuari will not be part of the BTC as the government plans to hold separate talks with him.

Duterte has also been pushing for a federal government, saying it is the only way to achieve peace in Mindanao and to gain the trust of Moros. He even warned that the Philippines will “lose Mindanao” if federalism is not implemented.

The president made it clear though that he is not extending the olive branch to lawless groups like the Maute militants, which is said to have links with international terrorist cell Islamic State. Duterte said the group, which occupied parts of a Lanao del Sur town in November, is “very dangerous” but would eventually pay for their atrocities.

The president, also the commander-in-chief of the 125,000-strong armed forces, has been very vocal about his concerns about the ISIS threat, which he believes is seeking to penetrate Southeast Asia. According to him, terrorism could be the next biggest problem of the Philippines especially Mindanao, where armed groups who have professed loyalty to ISIS operate.

Duterte has changed his tone though on the Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic extremist group involved in several bombing and kidnap-for-ransom incidents in the south. When Filipina kidnap victim Maritess Flor was freed a week before he assumed office, Duterte said the abductions should stop and promised that there would be a “day of reckoning” with the Abu Sayyaf.

Duterte was more conciliatory in November when he asked the Abu Sayyaf to stop the kidnappings and to start talking to the government. The president even promised to treat them dinner if they pass by his hometown in Davao City during the Christmas season. According to him, he could be a “bad boy” and order a full-blast invasion of areas with Abu Sayyaf presence but it would cause the loss of innocent lives. Security officials insisted though that the government would not negotiate with the local terrorist group.

Predictably unpredictable

Duterte’s first few months in office have shown that it is easy to predict the themes in the president’s speeches but not the way he thinks. He can issue policy pronouncements and call out his foes in the most unexpected events and venues.

Duterte’s behavior brings to mind the words of bestselling author Robert Greene, who believes that keeping others in suspense by cultivating an air of unpredictability can keep one in power.

In his book 48 Laws of Power, he wrote: “Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other people’s actions. Your predictability gives them a sense of control. Turn the tables: be deliberately unpredictable. Behavior that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off balance, and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves. Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.”

It is not clear whether Duterte is deliberately making himself unpredictable to gain or maintain power. What is certain though is the Philippine leader known for his colorful language and off-the-cuff remarks will continue keep the entire nation guessing.


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