Before Christmas, Filipino actor Jaime Fabregas declared on Twitter, “We really have a weak president. The politicians love him because they can control him. They make him think he’s in control. Duterte is not running this country. Congress under Gloria Arroyo is.”
The remark struck a chord among those who saw it, and for someone who’s been following this story since it started to wriggle into the news, there’s much to be said for this shrewd observation. Beyond the actual provisions of law – the constitution is the basic law, after all – the Philippines’ entire political culture operates on the assumption that presidents wield the ultimate authority and are the ultimate arbiters and settlers of competing interests.
That requires the president to know the levers of power and to be zealous – and jealous – about not just his or her prerogatives, but those of their subordinates, too. No one can deny that President Rodrigo Duterte is both these things – zealous and jealous – as his policy of liquidating people in the name of his so-called war on drugs, or the manner in which he has dispensed punishment on those he dislikes, has shown. In this, his basic, even rudimentary, appreciation of the law has enabled him to approve the legal tricks of his competing subordinates when they’re useful for taking down individual political targets, from politicians to media practitioners. He has laid down legal cover for liquidations. (In a nutshell: Just make sure there are no witnesses, so you can say they tried to fight back).
But the presidency is multidimensional: Chief executives are responsible for practically all things, and not all of them can be attended to with sheer force of personality. To be sure, you can delegate – and delegate near totally, as he’s done with regard to the economy, for example – but then you are held hostage by the competence, or lack of it, of those to whom you have given a free hand to run the government and set its policies in your name.
From the start, President Duterte treated Congress – in particular, the House of Representatives in which he once served – with total contempt. He has been more circumspect with the Senate after it delivered and assisted in his desire to purge it of opposition Senator Leila de Lima, though its future, were it up to him, would be to turn it into a a smaller, and weaker, version of the House if federalism ever came to pass. But he has not matched his contempt with a firm grasp of the reins of party or coalition control.
When Gloria Macapagal Arroyo manoeuvred her way into the speakership, it was done in a manner calculated to prove to everyone that Duterte was a spectator, not a participant. In fact, it was the first time since the House was established in 1907 that its leadership was decided despite, and not because of, the wishes of the chief executive.
Arroyo then embarked on a campaign to offer an alternative to the technocratic tone-deafness of the administration’s economic managers, who were squandering the political capital of the administration as well as alarming its legislative allies because of inflation-inducing acts of commission and omission. For months, the economic managers had to eat humble pie as Arroyo lectured them and otherwise acted as if she were the only adult in the ruling coalition.
It’s only over the last couple of months that the economic managers have taken to fighting back – and publicly, too. But when the new round of petroleum taxes kicks in, in the lean January months when the public is traditionally grumpy and cash-strapped, the current second wind the economic managers may feel they’re enjoying may come to an end, and the ruling coalition will be saddled with public opinion that will increasingly matter as the date for elections nears.
It’s noteworthy that Duterte’s allies had said that they fully expected the president to finally announce the senatorial slate he’d endorse, after too many had repeated the fear that the ruling coalition had endorsed too many candidates, which might in turn lead the faithful to spoil their ballots by voting for too many senators. But the holidays came and went with no sign of that list – and it’s no consolation to consider the possibility that either the president can’t, or won’t, be bothered to make up his mind.