I cringe every time I hear the president say, “my country” or “my people” when speaking to us and not to a foreign audience. Almost six months in office, the president with his autocratic ways, may be feeling as though, having been elected president, he has acquired us as his property, chattel like cattle, that he now owns and can do with as he pleases.
I can only cringe. For how else can one respond to a president who will not listen except to his own voice, who thinks perhaps, or at least suggests that he knows best and he alone can solve the problems that he and he alone has discovered, feeling anointed with a mission – even as he reveals so much of what he does not know.
The man may have run for elections thinking he would be king. The Philippines had never had a monarchy, but datus behaved like feudal lords over vassals. A datu-hari is what he became in Davao. He can be charming when he chooses to be, thrilling his subjects to no end when he acts as the ornery guy next door who has come to eat his favourite food in his nightly haunts in the city, driving around like a cool guy on his Harley. For so long as he does some obviously good things, people will be content and happy; and willing to turn away from what might be very very bad – like the spate of killings in the city – which everyone believed was the reason Davao had become a better place.
But the presidency and the leadership of a democratic state, for that is where the 2016 elections landed Mr. Duterte, is quite a different thing.
The datu is not hari of the nation. He owns nothing of what is called “country,” least of all, the people.
So I cringe, not only when he says “my country, my people” – but all the other utter nonsense that he thinks is part of the presidency – deciding by fiat that a dictator will be buried among heroes, paying his debt to a political patron with our honor; dismissing old allies in order to please his new partners without consultation even with his officials, presenting the Philippines as a willing member of a new world order to be led by China and Russia. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc.
As president, Rodrigo Duterte has refused to be checked by limits of the presidential system. First he relied on the weakness that has bedevilled our political system, the empty shell of political parties whose members declared themselves immediately as part of the majority, counting on most politicians to be on his side. And the Senate, the House of Representatives and even the Supreme Court have all obliged.
We the country and the people should be ready for tough times ahead.
For one, the president has a number of serious faults to which he himself admits. And I am not using the term “faults” in its generic sense that presumes acceptance of human frailty. No one is perfect and divine. But he dismisses the importance of certain matters which could damage the institution of the presidency.
His language and manner dismisses the need for propriety, and I do not refer only to the rites and rituals in state affairs. We should be reminded that kings and queens are schooled in such things from birth, something that they need to master until it becomes second nature. It is also presumed as an obligation for the president who is obliged to respect the protocols that govern official public conduct.
He is not the only one who has been discomfited by these niceties and so he cannot be blamed for his dislike of such formalities. But his disrespect of this aspect of the presidency reflects on other more serious deficiencies. It reveals the failure to appreciate what being president involves.
He is also irascible, a horrible trait for a leader. Again, he is not the only leader who has been afflicted with the quick temper and the failure to check it. But he is probably among the few who have allowed themselves the full expression of their fury for all the public to see. It is part of the ability to submit to the rigors of public life. The best of them learn to keep their outbursts in check and out of sight.
Unfortunately, the president formed his political persona on the more forgiving provincial stage where the audience was more forgiving and the political theatre smaller in scope. And so the datu-hari persona must evolve into something closer to that of a head of government as well as of state.
No, Mr. President, you are not king. And we are not your subject people. We are indeed your sovereign. And the only thing we ask of you now is to listen.
You cannot just decide to kill and dispense with due process and rule of law. You cannot write or rewrite established law. Presidential orders can be subjected to judicial assessment. Legalism which you have evoked in the burial of the remains of the dictator also cuts both ways. Not all the lawyers of the land are on your side.
Although it was difficult to decide on my presidential candidate, I felt really good about how we held the 2016 elections. I felt honoured by the gracious concession of defeated candidates. I did not vote for Duterte but when he won, he won. Many of those who voted for others resolved to support his administration, hoping for the best. Dubious about what the cussing campaign and other various obscenities revealed about the man, I thought, or hoped, that he would keep that part of his persona within bounds.
Today, we know that the cussing and obscenities are a part of the entire package. There is something very disturbing about this as so much public anger can only come from the core, from somewhere deep within. Reckless killing is okay for this man as he values violence as a first resort. Instill fear in the hearts of your subjects and all will be quiet and a king can do as he pleases.
He recently warned addicts to stay inside their homes if they do not want to be killed. In a kind of circular reasoning, he blamed human rights activists for their part in the spread of drugs and said, he would kill them too.
It is time for more people to speak out and ask him to regard the country and people with a little more respect. He should begin to learn to say: Our Country, Our Nation and Our People.
The sense of collective fate might help to hold back the violence he has brought to the country. It can make a lot of difference when an elected president knows that he was not voted to rule like a king.