Autumn of the patriarch
The President may be far from being a legal scholar, but he has a low-level bureaucrat’s wily ability to comply with the appearances demanded by form, without bothering with conforming to the substance of the law.
Even if we didn’t have a Marcosian legacy in our Constitution that requires public disclosure of the chief executive’s health condition in the case of serious illness, it would still be natural for the public and the political and media classes to be perpetually curious about the health of the oldest man ever to have become our president. President Duterte has been forthcoming about his health: He himself revealed he has various ailments, ranging from Barrett’s esophagus, Buerger’s disease, to migraines and dizziness. These have led to the past use of the pain reliever fentanyl and an oxygen concentrator machine to help him sleep at night. Chronic ailments, perhaps, but not life-threatening, at least in his estimation.
And that’s precisely the point — that form trumps substance. When his back’s to the wall, he will be forthcoming to the extent that he says something, regardless if his less informed (or less forthcoming) subordinates end up exposed as having engaged in stonewalling. It boosts the President’s image as a blunt truth-teller, the old silverback gorilla beating his chest just when all the other apes think he is a goner. It’s the equivalent of Ferdinand Marcos telling reporters (and, through them, his minions and enemies both), “I do not intend to die.”
After the polyp-related kerfuffle which resulted in a bruised and pouty spokesperson, the President reportedly told a Cabinet meeting that the results of the biopsies he’d confirmed were negative. One of the two unnamed sources of Rappler, though, opined that the President seemed “not straightforward,” as if Duterte was playing a “guessing game” with his Cabinet.
Since, by all accounts, the President reads the papers thoroughly and carefully, he will know, by what leaks out or not, who is toeing the party line when questions of his health — and thus, the future prospects of the President’s people — arise. (I used to joke to former media colleagues that then President Benigno S. Aquino III would be the last of our chief executives to have the habit of reading the morning papers and being influenced by what they reported and opined; neither knowing nor expecting, of course, that we would be moving backward in time when it came to his successor.) Perhaps Rappler’s source felt safe, considering it’s never really mentioned if the President even glances at online reports on a regular basis.
Still, for the self-appointed Adult in the Room (which is her current political branding), Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wasn’t about to be caught napping. She noticeably threw a Hail Mary — or, more precisely, a Hail Gloria — pass in the form of a revival of the Charter change scheme. She’d neatly defused the tensions caused by her predecessor as Speaker by announcing a temporary lull in the Cha-cha proceedings, but now it’s back with a vengeance—including a fully formed draft that her formerly faithful acolyte, Lito Atienza, tried to prevent being railroaded in plenary the other night.
One of the draft charter’s provisions is a change in the order of succession, naming the Senate President as successor to the incumbent President, should the present holder of the office kick the bucket before a new president can be elected after a new constitution is approved. That takes out of the equation the incumbent Vice President, for obvious reasons.
While “Hairy” Roque might not appreciate the quip that Arroyo has so far proven that fortune favors the bold (though not the bald), the wailing and gnashing of teeth that have met her Charter change revival can’t cover up the fact that, at the moment, while the ruling coalition has to confront the President’s mortality, she has a plan ready to ensure that the coalition can merrily roll along.
The President can play games with his Cabinet and the public, but to the current national mania for lotto predictions is now joined a new sport, which is calculating the odds on the President’s finishing his term. Mr. Duterte’s only solution, thus far, is to pack the bureaucracy with ex-military men, which betrays a short-term insecurity and not a long-term
vision. Who, after all, but a statesman would worry about succession? As the President has often said, he’s a mayor, not a statesman.
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