The gloves are off

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Which substance scrambles the brain more, cocaine or fentanyl?

The week opened with this question, asked in jest, as former president Rodrigo Duterte and his successor Bongbong Marcos swapped heated words about their supposed drug abuse.

Duterte, whose TV show on SMNI has been suspended along with the network itself, refuses to be gagged. You have to be living in the Marcos 1.0 era to believe you can suppress information and expression in this age. Duterte let out a mouthful at the prayer rally against Charter change, held late Sunday night in his turf Davao City’s Rizal Park.

For sure, the rally was deliberately scheduled to coincide with the launch of Marcos 2.0’s government rebranding, “Bagong Pilipino” (whatever that means; those in attendance looked like the same old same old) in Manila’s Rizal Park. And the messaging in Davao eclipsed whatever Marcos 2.0 was trying to convey in Bagong Pilipino.

Duterte, who had warned of a cocaine-addled candidate in the 2022 presidential race without naming names, did not mince words in his Sunday night speech in Davao: Bongbong Marcos is a “drug addict.” He was a drug addict when Duterte was mayor of Davao (“bangag noon”), and he’s an addict today, according to the former president.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency had shown him a list of drug suspects when he was Davao mayor, Duterte said, which included BBM. He held back from naming Marcos because they were friends, Duterte explained. On Monday, the PDEA said BBM had never been on any list of the agency.

*      *      *

Duterte was unapologetic and did not backtrack on any part of his speech.

His normally laid-back youngest son Sebastian, currently Davao City mayor, also unleashed an uncharacteristic tirade and called for BBM’s resignation. (Baste has apologized to the Marcoses, according to Senator Imee.)

Mayor Baste’s sister, Vice President Sara Duterte, said his statement was made “out of brotherly love” for her amid the shabby treatment she had been getting from the Marcos camp.

Rody Duterte also urged BBM to “forget” his cousin (and VP Sara’s nemesis), Martin Romualdez, saying the Speaker would bring Marcos to perdition. BBM, Duterte warned, could suffer the same fate as his father, who was ousted by people power in 1986, because of the ongoing signature campaign for a people’s initiative to amend the Constitution.

Duterte then called on the Armed Forces and police, where he still has considerable support, to protect the Constitution.

The Duterte camp has openly claimed Romualdez wants Charter change for a shift to a parliamentary system where he can sit as prime minister, which is the only way the Marcos-Romualdez clan can maintain its hold on power beyond 2028 amid VP Sara’s sustained high survey ratings.

A Time magazine article dated Jan. 29 can stoke concern in the halls of power. Its title: “In Philippine Presidential Polls Looking to 2028, Duterte’s Daughter Is Already the Frontrunner.”

Sen. Raffy Tulfo and former VP Leni Robredo ranked after Inday Sara, according to the article, citing a survey.

*      *      *

A congressman, coming to the defense of the Marcos-Romualdez clan, pointed out the obvious, that BBM’s resignation would pave the way for his constitutional successor the VP to take power. The congressman’s message boiled down to, ano kayo, siniswerti? (You should be so lucky.)

Duterte’s harangue must have touched a raw nerve. It provoked the normally polite and unflappable BBM to respond with his own mouthful before leaving for Vietnam. Marcos told reporters it must be the fentanyl, whose prolonged use can addle one’s brain. Duterte has been using the powerful opioid for years, BBM said, as he urged his predecessor’s doctors to take better care of the 78-year-old former president.

Duterte himself had disclosed his use of fentanyl, saying it was prescribed by his doctor as a painkiller after he had a motorcycle accident before he became president.

In a speech in Davao City in February 2017, he revealed that he once took a full dose of fentanyl instead of cutting the pill into four as prescribed by his doctor.

Describing the experience, Duterte said: “More than just the disappearance of pain, you feel that you are on Cloud 9. Para bang everything is OK with the world, nothing to worry about.”

Fentanyl is a controlled drug in the Philippines, meaning it can be prescribed by doctors for pain management. I know someone who was also prescribed fentanyl for a serious affliction, and who gave a similar description of its effect on pain.

It’s unclear if Duterte has continued using the drug, which has killed tens of thousands from overdose in the US alone. He also suffers from Barrett’s esophagus and Buerger’s disease, which can cause chronic pain.

But supporters pointed out that while Duterte had admitted his fentanyl use, BBM sidestepped the question when asked by a reporter if he was using illegal drugs, as Duterte alleged.

He would not dignify the question, BBM said. Under the circumstances, however, what was wrong with giving a categorical statement like, “no, I’m not a drug addict,” or a cokehead, or even a recreational drug user?

*      *      *

On Monday, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) announced that it was suspending indefinitely all proceedings related to the signature gathering for the people’s initiative.

It could have been a reaction to the protests from a united Senate. But because of the timing, there was also speculation that the rally in Davao contributed to the Comelec’s decision.

Yesterday, however, the Comelec said it could not stop the signature campaign being carried out by the People’s Initiative for Reform, Modernization and Action, which is a private group. Over at the Senate, PIRMA’s lead convenor disclosed yesterday that congressmen led by Romualdez helped in the signature drive.

The vaunted UniTeam continued to put up a show of unity on Monday, with BBM designating VP Sara as government caretaker during his two-day trip to Vietnam. The VP also joined other officials in seeing off the First Couple at Villamor Air Base.

Even in that show of unity, however, the cracks were visible in public. Video footage showed First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos, who was mentioned in Rody Duterte’s harangue, bidding well-wishers goodbye, and then ignoring the VP at the head of the line.

In Vietnam yesterday, Marcos said his ties with VP Sara remain “exactly the same.” She stays as education secretary, he said, and their UniTeam “is still there.”

Understandably, people are taking this with a grain of salt.

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