Decoding Duterte | Inquirer Opinion
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Decoding Duterte

IT IS not easy to reconcile seeming discrepancies among statements made by President Rody Roa Duterte (PRRD) and between what he says and what he does.  But the task should not take the skills required to read tea leaves or chicken entrails.  Five weeks after he assumed office, we begin to get a sense of the presidential style.

First, prepared scripts do not sit well with PRRD, as demonstrated not only by his casual treatment of the State of the Nation Address prompter, but also by his undisguised surprise at portions of his text. After reading the plan to accelerate commuter train speed from 40 to 60 kilometers per hour, he commented: “Huwag kayong maniwala dito” (Don’t believe this). He then talked about the risk of raising speed limits with dilapidated train tracks.

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He softened this warning by addressing Transportation Secretary Arturo Tugade: “Art, ambisyoso ka, ah. Kaya mo kaya ito?” (Art, you are ambitious. Can you really do this?). The possibility of being publicly disavowed may make PRRD’s executives more modest in their claims. It may also lead the public to wonder which of the prepared texts issued under his name PRRD takes seriously.

Second, the remarks probably reflect PRRD’s limited time and patience with protracted planning processes.  Management consultants would prescribe a system for approving speeches or, for instance, critical personnel appointments. The latter would involve several steps, including preparing a short list of candidates and the metrics to evaluate each one’s fitness for the job.  This was not the process PRRD described in appointing Environment Secretary Gina Lopez.

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PRRD acts decisively, guided by a quick read on people and a gut feel sharpened by personal experience.  In the Lopez case, he explained his judgment: “I would not be appointing somebody who is alien to my thinking.  I would take in somebody who shares my horizons in life.”

This spontaneity can become problematic, as in the reported offer of the Commission on Higher Education chairmanship to Jose David Lapuz, PRRD’s former professor at Lyceum. The post was not vacant, as the fixed term of the current chair, Patricia Licuanan, had not expired. Lapuz apparently also lacked the earned doctorate required for this position.

PRRD’s experience, his “horizons,” came mainly from 23 years as a mayor. Election as a local government executive brought him closer to his constituency and, perhaps, reinforced the tendency toward action more than analysis and the emphasis on service delivery. In the Sona, he pushed for facilitating the processes of obtaining driver’s licenses, passports, business permits, even train tickets.

These were low-hanging fruit, perhaps, but these addressed issues that directly touched the majority of people who lack the money or the connections to ease the oppressive irritants of daily life. He understood, and empathized with, the plight of those who have to camp on city streets overnight to secure a place in the queue: “I do not want to see people lining up under the heat of the sun. I do not want people lining up under the rain.”

While sensitive to the concerns of the marginalized, PRRD’s passionate crusade against the drug trade leads to some dissonance.

Addressing the issue of the communist insurgency, he waxed emotional, speaking of feeling the pain and grief of the widows and orphans left behind by slain government soldiers and rebels. But he has no sympathy to waste on those widowed and orphaned by the action of police or vigilante groups. Surely, whatever the circumstances of their loss, those widows and orphans also feel pain and grief.  His dismissal as “drama-drama” of the Pieta-like photograph of the grieving woman cradling her dead, alleged drug-pusher partner, which the New York Times reprinted, thus appears uncharacteristically callous.

Many rely on PRRD’s assurance that his “adherence to due process and the rule of law is uncompromising.” Not “belief,” not “commitment,” but “adherence,” which is validated in action. He has already proven that he can deal death to drug dealers. He still has to demonstrate that he can act as decisively in punishing those who practice extrajudicial executions in violation of the rule of law.

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A third point has become obvious: PRRD is not afraid to change his mind. After initially finding reasons for their actions, he has come around to characterize the Abu Sayyaf as terrorists and criminals. He has agreed that a basic law for Bangsamoro autonomy should not have to wait for a federal system. He switched from supporting a constitutional commission to a constitutional assembly as the mechanism for political change. This willingness to change course gives hope to those who believe in a legal basis for denying Ferdinand Marcos burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

The President’s presumed “transparency” has rightly drawn much favorable comment. We just need to remember that “transparent” does not necessarily mean “consistent,” much less “predictable.”  We still need to understand what role messengers or messages play in persuading PRRD to change his mind.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. Prof. Rofel Brion’s Tagalog translation of this column and others earlier published, together with other commentaries, are in http://secondthoughts.ph.

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