President Rodrigo Roa Duterte dutifully went through the rituals of a tightly scripted inaugural ceremony last Thursday. He embraced the full text of his prepared speech with good humor, giving it a tone and a cadence that hewed closely to the established patterns of inaugural speeches.
The speech was brief and had a simple structure. But it managed to resonate all the basic themes of constitutional democracy: accountable and transparent governance, rule of law, and respect for due process. It was eloquent, if rather conservative.
Though a little stiff at the start, President Digong stayed well-poised throughout the event. Still, he could not resist signaling a desire to free himself from the straitjacket of the formal state function in which he had found himself.
Reaching the end of the prepared speech, he paused and impishly announced: “Hindi kasali ito diyan” (This is not part of the text). The audience let out a murmur of nervous laughter, no doubt anticipating a torrent of emancipated language that has been the hallmark of the former mayor’s signature monologues. Whereupon the tough-talking leader from Mindanao, now the nation’s 16th President, turned somber, and began to speak from the heart.
“Why am I here?” he asked. “The past tense was, I am here because I love my country and I love the people of the Philippines. I am here, why? Because I am ready to start my work for the nation.” One could almost hear a collective sigh of relief rising from the packed ceremonial hall inside Malacañang Palace. It was a performative break that epitomized the tension inherent in both the speech and in the Duterte presidency itself.
It’s too early to say if this is the promised metamorphosis. The speech was a cogent normative statement of what could pass for a general policy framework. But, we don’t know to what extent it will guide actual day-to-day decision-making in the Duterte administration.
Some choice sentences from the presidential speech do seem to offer earnest reassurances of a democratic presidency. Here are some examples: “It is the people from whom democratic governments draw strength and this administration is no exception.” “As a lawyer and a former prosecutor, I know the limits of the power and authority of the president, I know what is legal and what is not.” “Changing the rules when the game is ongoing is wrong.” “[T]he Republic of the Philippines will honor treaties and international obligations.” “On the domestic front, my administration is committed to implement all signed peace agreements in step with constitutional and legal reforms.”
Uttered by anyone else, these would be motherhood statements. But, we find them powerful because we don’t expect them to be said by Rodrigo Duterte in his very first speech as president. These are not the usual sounds that autocrats make.
I say this not out of skepticism, but out of a strained effort to reconcile the high-minded principles articulated in the inaugural speech with the down-to-earth, idiosyncratic style of leadership that has become the Duterte trademark. Indeed, this tension is evident in various parts of the inaugural speech. It manifests itself as the conflict between the exigencies of effective governance and the commitment to due process.
Two statements capture this best. The first comes after the President argues that the fight against criminality, illegal drugs, and corruption will have to be relentless if the people’s faith and trust in government is to be restored. “In this fight, I ask Congress and the Commission on Human Rights and all others who are similarly situated to allow us a level of governance that is consistent to our mandate.” The second comes after he declares that he will be uncompromising in his adherence to due process and the rule of law. Addressing the other branches of government and, by implication, the mass media, he sternly tells them: “You mind your work and I will mind mine.”
Let us deconstruct these two propositions.
What exactly is meant by “a level of governance that is consistent [with] our mandate”? As I argued in a previous column (Public Lives, 5/29/16), mandate is a contested term. How one performs the functions of government is determined not by a mandate—however one may understand this—but by the Constitution and the laws of the land. The President’s oath of office articulates this in no uncertain terms: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfill my duties as President of the Philippines, preserve and defend its Constitution, execute its laws, do justice to every man, and consecrate myself to the service of the Nation.”
And, can minding one’s own work possibly mean “Don’t look into my backyard”? Isn’t the business of agencies like the Commission on Human Rights, for example, precisely to look into the State’s backyard in order to ensure that, in the performance of its work, government does not trample on the rights of its citizens?
Indeed, I understood both statements as no more than a gracious way of saying: “Don’t stand in my way; I have a job to do.” Every autonomous institution that takes its work seriously can say this. As powerful as the presidency is in our system, it is but one of three coequal branches of government. Neither the urgency of our problems, nor the impatience of our people, nor the claim of a solid mandate, could justify setting aside the Constitution as the ultimate criterion of lawful official action.
What gives me pause, however, is the awareness that history is replete with instances when citizens used their democratic rights to put an end to democracy itself.
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