The contrarian president

/ 05:06 AM September 21, 2020

We’ve had more than four years of opportunity to observe President Duterte’s decision-making behavior, and what have we learned by now? Is there a common denominator in his decisions? Do we see a pattern of underlying reason in his actions? Do a moral anchor, legal foundation and principled advocacy or pragmatism and vested interest constitute a common thread in the actions he takes? The questions crop up because of two recent controversies in which the President made decisions that were unpopular and that bewildered even his supporters and close allies. The first of these controversies is his intervention in the case of Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton. The US Marine had been convicted of killing Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He had served a mere five years of his sentence, and his plea for early release for supposed good conduct was being heard in court.

Out of nowhere, Mr. Duterte intervened, shoved aside the ongoing court proceedings, and imposed his own conclusion of facts and interpretation of the law by declaring that Pemberton had been treated unfairly. He went on to grant the soldier absolute pardon.


The President’s action confounded many because he had long shown an anti-American bias, exhibited revulsion toward criminals, and assured the Laude family that Pemberton would not be released from prison during his presidency, as claimed by Jennifer’s mother.

The second controversy involves the widespread call to replace Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who has been blamed for “incompetence” in handling the government’s health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate, shortly after its inquiry into the PhilHealth scandal, even recommended that criminal charges of corruption be brought against Duque. But despite the huge clamor for Duque’s ouster even among Duterte allies, the President has repeatedly declared his full trust and confidence in his health secretary.


There are many more examples of the President’s actions that amount to a disdain for the popular: his excessive friendliness with China despite Filipinos’ hatred for that country; his offensive diatribes against the Catholic Church notwithstanding the fact that Filipinos are overwhelmingly Catholic; his sponsorship of the bloody war on drugs despite the risk of accountability at the International Criminal Court; and his tirades against the United States and the European Union notwithstanding the Philippines’ economic dependence on them.

There may be a number of reasons behind all the controversial decisions, and there is likely one dominant motivation in each of Mr. Duterte’s provocative actions. One cannot help but notice, however, that there is an element present in all his contentious deeds, similar to the omnipresence of salt in every dietary recipe. This is his propensity to scorn popular belief, to espouse the unpopular, and to mock convention and custom. While other leaders crave praise for their actions, we have a leader who disdains acceptability, flouts conformity, and projects a rebellious streak. His inclination to roll up his sleeves even in very formal occasions reeks of contempt for niceties and tradition.

We have a President who has a penchant for being contrarian. When he’s pushed toward one direction, he pushes back and goes instead to the opposite direction. Because of this predilection for defiance, Mr. Duterte’s supporters praise him as a maverick, while his detractors dismiss him as an anarchist.

Where has this rebellious inclination brought our country in the past four years? One gets the feeling that this propensity for defiance is demonstrated for the mere sake of being different, because there’s no discernible legal, moral, or principled explanation in many of these controversial decisions. Devoid of justification, they are bereft of benefit for our country and people.

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