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Du30’s facial powder and the limits of political will

/ 05:07 AM August 28, 2018

In recent weeks, the Duterte presidency has considerably weakened; equally important, it has been seen to grow considerably weaker. This is not to say that the President is losing his grip on power; only that, at an entirely premature time, rival sources of power have asserted themselves, and a popular president no longer looks completely in control or invincible.

It is already congealed conventional wisdom to point to former president Gloria Arroyo’s dramatic ascent to the speakership of the House of Representatives, and the brutal efficiency of the ouster of Pantaleon Alvarez, as the beginning of a new phase, which the President himself candidly referred to as a lame-duck period.

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But perhaps the real start of this new period was May 21, when Sen. Tito Sotto replaced Sen. Koko Pimentel as Senate president.

My understanding is that, like Arroyo, Sotto is an independent power, and the center of an influential power bloc, in his own chamber. While genuine allies of the President, both Arroyo and Sotto do not really need the President’s blessing to win the leadership of their peers. In contrast, both Pimentel and especially Alvarez needed the presidential imprimatur; without it, they could not have hoped to be Senate president or speaker.

So the replacement of Pimentel and Alvarez does not only mean the end of an all-Mindanao leaders’ summit at the top of the governmental pyramid; it also represents the end of a period of dependency on the President’s power, charisma or attention.

I wish to be clear: I do not mean to suggest that Sotto or even Arroyo are poised to oppose President Duterte, or that they do not now enjoy the President’s support. Far from it. But because these leaders have their own bases of power independent of the President’s, they are in a much stronger position to define the actual shape of the President’s political and legislative agenda. The Duterte administration’s fatal fixation on extreme measures such as the reimposition of the death penalty and the lowering of the age of criminal liability, for instance, will need to be recalibrated in the face of Speaker Arroyo’s longstanding objections.

And when Arroyo’s lieutenants questioned the policy wisdom of the proposed new cash-based budget, the administration was initially flummoxed. Without his meaning to, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque hinted at the panic in the Palace. “We’d like to think that they continue to be important allies of the President, but apparently, the change of leadership has also brought in a different kind of relationship. How else do you explain Congress refusing to act on the President’s budget?” he asked.

Roque, who abandoned his principles and joined the administration because of the way it controlled and distributed power, could not even begin to think of the issue in terms of a policy difference. It was either the President got his way, or it’s “a different kind of relationship.”

At the same time as the President was weakening politically, he was also—and very transparently—weakening physically. He already went missing for extended periods in June last year; this year, he has admitted to being in constant pain, and his face has turned unusually dark. If this were truly nothing, there would have been no need to lie to the public about his condition. And yet here was Roque giving voice, again, to the panic in the Palace. “Maybe he’s not wearing powder. The President normally wears powder. Maybe it was just a photo taken of him without powder. I don’t see anything extraordinarily different [in] the President’s face,” he said.

When the full history of Dutertismo is written, this absurd, ridiculous, completely unbelievable assertion may be seen as the beginning of the end of the Duterte myth—the time when the President’s gospel of political will met its outer limit. Not that wearing facial powder is necessarily unmanly, although this is exactly the sort of thing one would hear from the President’s kind of people; the issue is that Duterte is supposed to be the genuine article, not needing fuss or artifice. And to hide what may be a medical condition through the supposed use of makeup: This is not the conduct of the archetypal Malakas.

The President has since taken his own characteristic tack in explaining the darkening: He says he “likes to roam in the mountains”—a barb aimed at communist founder Joma Sison. But the dust from Roque’s powdery statement hasn’t settled yet. At the same time, the other limits of Dutertismo—on the use of political porn, for instance, or on “federalism” as a platform for change—have also been reached. The space for the exercise of political will has greatly narrowed.

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand. E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Duterte, Gloria Arroyo, politics
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