Swan song

The joke Monday night was that two records were broken: one by weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who finally gave the Philippines its first ever Olympic gold medal in 97 years, and the other by President Duterte, for the longest State of the Nation Address ever, at a grueling two hours and 46 minutes.

After the President’s depressing assessment of the state of the COVID-hit nation, Hidilyn’s feat was a most welcome piece of fantabulous news.

Across a country that is battening down the hatches against the onslaught of the Delta variant, there was an eruption of jubilation similar to what we see each time boxing icon Manny Pacquiao is declared winner in a bout.

Regardless of the subsequent performance of Hidilyn and the rest of the Philippine team, nothing can take away the national euphoria from that first Olympic gold medal.

Her feat completely eclipsed the SONA, which was vintage Duterte – by turns playful and belligerent, defensive to the end of his war on drugs, and as rambling and disorganized as the pandemic response.

Apart from the fact that Hidilyn obtained the country’s first gold and broke an Olympic record, Duterte’s SONA was long on the drug war and short on Filipinos’ most pressing concern: COVID-19.

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While it was somewhat touching to hear Duterte openly express despair over the new threat posed by Delta (“I really do not know what to do… maybe we’ll just have to pray for salvation…”), it wasn’t the message people wanted to hear from a leader during the worst crisis the country has faced since World War II.

While Delta is taking the pandemic farther into uncharted, dangerous territory, and all governments are groping for the proper response, Duterte could have dwelled more on plans to restart livelihoods, assist enterprises, and save or create jobs.

For the long term, he could have outlined planned reforms that can make the country lure investments in a fiercely competitive region where analysts now see the Philippines turning into a basket case.

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While Duterte talked at length about his drug war, promising no letup in the killings, he also effectively admitted that his Davao model of scaring away drug dealers through a brutal crackdown has failed at the national level.

To be fair, it was an overly ambitious goal; no country has completely eradicated the drug menace. The same goes for his campaign against corruption.

Still, 11 months is a long time, and he can still shake up the rat nests. For example, the Supreme Court, in a move that smacks of the mafia, has prevented the Office of the Ombudsman from initiating a graft probe of members of the judiciary. But nothing is stopping the executive from initiating a tax probe on certain members of the judicial system who are coddlers of the corrupt. Duterte can start with the justices behind the acquittal of certain wealthy persons accused of large-scale corruption.

A tax case may place crooked magistrates under the jurisdiction of the Anti-Money Laundering Council. US mob boss Al Capone was finally put behind bars on a tax evasion case. In Duterte’s final year in office, he can still use this weapon to go after seemingly untouchable crooks in government.

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The President stressed that his final SONA was not his swan song. But he made no mention of his political plans for 2022, or of the push by his PDP-Laban party mates for him to seek the vice presidency. He had previously said his coyness on a possible VP bid was merely “posturing” so he doesn’t become a lame duck in his final year.

Duterte teased that Senate President Tito Sotto would make a “good… capable” vice president, without mentioning the person he had said he would endorse as VP, House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez.

There was also no mention of the presidential bid of his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio.

Instead the President talked for some time about the person he supposedly prefers as successor, his long-time aide Bong Go, giving the senator credit for the tax-funded Malasakit centers.

While Duterte’s speech lasted nearly three hours, there was the notable absence of the usual fighting words against his staunch critics. He treated Vice President Leni Robredo with decorum, and made an effort to avoid cussing and sexist jokes.

There were touches of the qualities that endeared him to the masses during the 2016 campaign: the quips about his struggle with the teleprompter, the instruction for the audience to wait for his cue for clapping, and finally the need to pee after three nearly hours.

If these trends will continue in the next 11 months, he might yet get the country to unite in fighting a common enemy – COVID-19 – now made even deadlier by the Delta variant.

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Now we know that he earns P219,000 a month, must work through the night, and is guarded almost like a prisoner as mandated by law.

It makes you wonder why people would spend a fortune to seek the presidency. Estimates of the campaign cost range from P1.5 billion to P3 billion. While a candidate and his party raise the funds from donors and supporters, the candidate himself must also fork out a sizeable contribution from his own pockets.

Duterte spent too much time defending his war on drugs, but at least he knows that the battle against COVID will also define his presidency.

And at least he didn’t dangle false hopes. The world is groping for the proper response to Delta as more fully vaccinated people report breakthrough infections, including serious cases and even death. The infections disregard the vaccine brand.

In confusing messages that have become typical of the government’s response, Duterte – apparently reading from the prepared speech on the teleprompter – ruled out further lockdowns. But later in extemporaneous remarks (always more honest), he said Delta could compel another lockdown.

Businessmen have warned that a Delta lockdown could kill prospects for economic recovery by the ’ber months. If there is a Delta-driven repeat of last summer’s surge, however, during which COVID deaths soared, I think there will be little appetite for holiday celebration anyway. Instead the fresh sorrow from COVID, with mourning during the days of the dead in November will carry over into the Christmas season.

Rodrigo Duterte will have to resign himself to the thought that his presidency will be remembered for suffering – from COVID, from drug killings – with moments of joy caused by events not of his own doing, such as Hidilyn’s gold.

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