The perils of an impulsive presidency

This is my fourth column on recent events that unexpectedly thrust Vice President Leni Robredo into the limelight. Even if some may think the issue it deals with has become stale, I believe we shouldn’t let go of it easily as though it signifies nothing of importance. That’s exactly how the Duterte administration wants us to treat this entire affair — a joke over which everyone has had a good laugh.

But let’s pause and consider even for a minute what has just happened, and what it tells us about decision-making under a Duterte presidency.

A short recap of the events would be useful. VP Leni gives an interview to Reuters News, in which she criticizes the brutal conduct of the government’s anti-illegal drugs campaign. She makes the case that the killings and the arrests that have occurred in this so-called drug war amount to a war against the poor. This brutal campaign, she says, has remarkably spared the big-time drug lords.

These criticisms are not new. They have been made before by many other observers. But coming from the Vice President, the leader of the opposition and, more importantly, a woman, these points appear to have stung Mr. Duterte.

He seethes in anger, but he does not think she is worth taking seriously. He’s torn between treating her dismissively and teaching her a lesson by daring her to take over the government’s antidrug campaign, an obvious bait she could run away from like a coward.

In my initial column on this subject, I said that no sensible person could possibly take Mr. Duterte’s “offer” seriously. Dripping with contempt, it was made in a moment of pique. The President could barely conceal his exasperation over the way the drug war has been derailed by a corrupt police force. He seemed exhausted, drained not just by the drug problem but by the demands of the presidency itself. In fact, he sounded like he was calling for help.

I think his own people were confused. On one hand, the boss did sound as if he was taunting the Vice President who, in their view, had no right to speak about a subject she knew nothing about. But, on the other hand, they suspected that the President was up to something naughty and interesting. And so they went along, conjuring a charade that was designed not only to put her in her place but to embarrass her.

Such is their belief in the Duterte myth that men like presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo are completely incapable of telling him what he can and cannot do. They take his incoherent musings as emanations of a genius too deep for ordinary minds to grasp. Thus, they indulge him, willfully acting as enablers of a childish capriciousness never before seen in the nation’s highest office.

As events in the past week have shown, it did not take long for Mr. Duterte and his men to realize that it is they, not Leni, who got stuck in a quagmire of their own making. Because she would not quit, they had to fire her. Though we have her to thank for accepting a dare she knew she had little chance of winning, and not blinking, this is not at all just about Leni Robredo.

One finds in this unfortunate incident a pattern of impulsive decision-making that is as reckless as it is thoughtless. Two instances quickly come to mind — the banning of rice imports for the duration of the harvest season in response to the pleas of affected local rice farmers, and the order to ban vaping products and arrest users caught vaping in public. The President had to recall his order suspending rice importation after he was told that this populist gesture was against the law he himself had signed. As for vaping, the police said they would comply with the President’s orders, but only to the extent of confiscating the products. They were told that the existing law against smoking does not give them the right to arrest vapers.

The same policy confusion resulting from spur-of-the moment orders was visible in the abrupt closure of Boracay, the short-lived shutdown of lotto outlets and the Small Town Lottery, the initial banning of online gaming operations or Pogos, etc. Behind all these is the penchant to act boldly without the benefit of careful study. Far from being a strategic thinker, the President operates entirely by the hit-and-miss method of a local strongman. Sometimes, it works, as in the case of Boracay. But a lot of times, it creates and leaves a mess. Look at Marawi; look at the state of the peace talks with the armed left. Look at the drug war.

The wonder of it all is that, as far as the public is concerned, this President is incapable of committing a mistake so grave as to make them turn to the opposition for succor. The high approval ratings he continues to get in public opinion polls practically eliminate the need for self-examination. As his spokesperson puts it: The high ratings speak for themselves.

I don’t think they do. To me, they speak more of the depth of the public’s disenchantment with previous administrations than of any unwavering commitment to Mr. Duterte’s impulsive presidency. More than three years after catapulting him to the nation’s highest position, populist resentment borne of decades of perceived elite betrayal continues to drive our people’s responses to political events. We need a different kind of politics if we are to put a stop to the dragon seed of authoritarianism.