Understanding Duterte

President Duterte delivers his first State of the Nation Address. Mr. Duterte, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III (top left) and Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez—the country’s top three elected officials—are all from Mindanao, a first in the country’s history. JOAN BONDOC

In the first half hour of last Monday’s State of the Nation Address, President Duterte’s voice was nowhere to be found. The man at the podium was struggling not just to read the text on the teleprompter, but also to own it.

The prepared speech had some finely crafted phrases that elicited earnest applause. But as he tried to keep pace with the moving text, the President could not hide his discomfort. He sensed that he was not connecting with the audience.

So, there were two speeches that day. The first was a recitation of what appeared to be a hastily assembled action agenda for the first 100 days of the new administration. The second, the one that sparkled, was that of the President speaking to his prepared speech, unburdening himself of the mixed emotions that had come to him after his unexpected rise to the presidency.

Where he seemed distant, awkward, and mechanical in the first, he was intimate, spontaneous, and fully engaged in the second.  Where he was the stiff and tentative government official at the start, Mr. Duterte turned into a raconteur brimming with humor and self-confidence in the rest of his first Sona.

The unrehearsed portions were easily the most applauded, signifying a public appreciation for candor, straight talk, and a manifest disdain for the rituals of public power. The entire performance must have kept the members of the Duterte Cabinet at the edge of their seats.  No one could tell at what point a reckless aside would undermine a carefully formulated policy.

I doubt if this risky habit can be tempered by merely changing the President’s speech writers. His close circle of advisers must know by now that much of the Duterte charisma stems basically from the man’s penchant to tell stories in order to contextualize his no-nonsense approach to governance. His tough, raw, and often vulgar language is what precisely endears him to a public that has grown skeptical and weary of the formal platitudes and politically correct vocabulary of government officials. From this perspective, formality could be just another mask for ineptitude. He rolls up his sleeves to signify he’s ready to work; he can’t wait to go past the ceremonies.

We should not be surprised at the scant attention given to coherence and substance. It was this persona that got Rodrigo Duterte elected, not his program of government—whatever that might be. None of the issues he espoused during the campaign were urgent or priority issues at that time, if one goes by the surveys.

Federalism, the drug problem, peace talks with the communist movement, restoration of the death penalty, etc.—none of these were considered urgent national tasks before

Mr. Duterte started talking about them. These issues became priority topics because he made them so. Indeed, he spoke so freely and irreverently about everything during the campaign that one would think the last thing he desired was to win the presidency.

Therefore, if one wants to know who the real Rodrigo Duterte is and where he might take the country in the next six years, I guess the scripted Sona should be the last place to look. But, the unscripted part offers an excellent glimpse of the man’s leadership style, as well as of the things he is passionate about.

He appears to have behind him a very small circle of friends and associates he implicitly trusts. These are people who had worked with him in various capacities when he was mayor of Davao, and keep to the background. It is to them he turns for suggestions as well as to put some order to his day. Then there are the classmates and acquaintances, many of them fellow Davaoeños who mobilized support for him during the campaign. Their company constitutes his comfort zone. In this, President Duterte is not very different from his predecessors.

With regard to things he knows little about, he seems ready to trust in the wisdom and knowledge of people who have worked in a given area and are equally passionate about their advocacies. He likes fighters, mavericks who are not afraid to go against the grain. I don’t believe he is a socialist in any ideological sense, but one might call him a leftist for his strong anti-Establishment and anti-elitist inclinations. I also think that his advocacy of a federal form of government springs more from a revulsion to the perceived colonization of the country by Manila than by a staunch belief in federalism as a concept.

He has gut sympathies for the plight of the poor and the oppressed, except when they themselves routinely break the law. At one point in his extemporaneous Sona remarks, he said: “We have to adjust to the needs of our people … mitigate the hardships of these people.”  He talks about the victims of squatter demolitions who are thrown into the streets and have nowhere to go. He gets emotional about indigenous communities whose lands are ripped apart by irresponsible mining. But he offers no words of comfort to the poor who have found themselves at the receiving end of his ongoing bloody antidrug campaign. Clearly, he does not consider drug dependence as among the hidden injuries of the poor.

Mr. Duterte is, by instinct, a peace and order person, ready to wage war against anyone or any group that “makes a mockery of our laws,” but eager to reconcile with any group that fights out of principle. The one thing he hates most, I think, is being talked down to, or sanctimoniously admonished by moral gatekeepers.

If change is coming, it will not be because this president is offering the nation a new vision. Rather, it will be because someone, at last, has decided to hitch commonsense to single-mindedness to solve the country’s problems.

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