“Kindly sit down. Thank you for your courtesy,” implored Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, striking an uncharacteristically easy-going tone at the beginning of his second State of the Nation Address (SONA).
“For as I saw it then as I see it now, there is no problem in the world which can stop the march of a people with unflinching and tenacious determination,” he continued in a gentle and statesmanlike manner, largely sticking to his carefully crafted script to the astonishment of a nation accustomed to his populist outbursts.
Yet, it was painfully clear that the tough-talking Filipino leader could barely retain his formal and courteous demeanor. As soon as the discussion shifted to his bloody war on drugs, however, Duterte immediately reverted to his impromptu style of presentation.
What followed was a shocking (even by Duterte’s tough-talking standards) slew of invectives and curses against critics, including traditional Western allies and the United Nations.
To the horror of many parents, they had to hurriedly escort their children away from television sets and switch off radios, lest their impressionable offspring ended up hearing the president’s cocktail of sexist commentaries and foul language.
Duterte threatened his political opponents, foreign critics and major businessmen like a self-assured dictator, impervious to the checks and balances inherent to a democratic system.
The president also taunted, albeit half-jokingly, key legislators who have dragged their feet on passing his pet bills, including the restoration of the death penalty and a controversial tax reform package.
Duterte’s defiance and complete disregard for conventions of power have underscored the Philippines’ gradual lurch towards what some refer to as ‘neo-authoritarianism.’ It has exposed the fragility of the country’s democratic institutions, given how the president can say and act in whichever manner he whimsically prefers with absolute impunity.
To his legion of critics, the speech resembled more the ravings of a mad man than a balance sheet of achievements of a respected commander-in-chief.
Duterte may not be the reincarnation of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, but he is what scholars call a ‘new dictator’, a democratically elected leader who proudly disrespects liberal democratic values as part of his magnetic charisma.
“I have resolved that no matter how long it takes, the fight against illegal drugs will continue because that is the root cause of so much evil and so much suffering,” declared Duterte to much applause among a largely deferential, if not sycophantic, audience of legislators and government officials.
For Duterte, the drug issue is the ultimate national crisis, which “weakens the social fabric and deters foreign investments from pouring in.” He vowed that his brutal campaign, which has led to the deaths of thousands of suspected drugs dealers, “will be unremitting as it will be unrelenting.”
After ensuring everyone that he will not “loosen the leash in the campaign or lose the fight against illegal drugs,” Duterte presented himself as the ultimate guardian of the state against “beasts and vultures preying on the helpless, the innocent [and] the unsuspecting.”
One man rule rather than rule of law was a constant element in Duterte’s speech. He defended his decision to declare martial law across his home island of Mindanao, the duration of which was recently extended until the end of the year. After two months of intensive operations, the Philippine military is yet to liberate Marawi city from an Islamic State-affiliated detachment.
In a classic display of politics of fear, Duterte raised the prospects of terror and narco-politics as justification for the growing centralization of power in his hands. Then, echoing anti-Western ex-leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Iran’s Mahmood Ahmadinejad, Duterte lashed out at representatives of Western nations, accusing them of interfering in the Philippines’ domestic affairs.
In one cuss after the other, he threatened them against further criticisms of his brand of justice, which, to him, focuses on retribution rather than rehabilitation and reintegration of criminals.
He sought to question the ‘White Man’s’ moral ascendancy, citing widespread social injustice and inequality within Western nations as well as American atrocities against Filipinos in the early-20th century.
He even mocked the Obama administration and foreign experts who criticized his war on drugs as clueless fools, while implying that current President Donald Trump is on his illiberal side.
Meanwhile, Duterte presented authoritarian China as a generous and friendly nation, which has offered only good will and assistance instead of criticism. He defended his decision to “cultivat[e] warmer relations with China through bilateral dialogues and other mechanisms” by essentially downplaying territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
In a press conference following his address, Duterte reiterated his preference for joint development agreements with China within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, regardless of whether this violates the Philippine constitution or the landmark arbitration award last year at The Hague by a tribunal formed under the aegis of the UN.
The speech seemed more like a reflection of Duterte’s state of mind than a systematic account of his achievements and priorities as national leader. His crass comments, ranting stream of conscious and overall informality, however, made a huge impression on the Filipino people, many of whom found his national address entertaining and appealing.
In many ways, Duterte is a ‘proto-autocrat’, a leader who has charmed a nation, defanged democratic institutions and built new alliances with authoritarian states with considerable ease. His ultimate weapons are authentic hubris, populist charisma and the politics of fear.
No matter how long he stays in power, the Philippines will never be the same again. The single-minded Duterte has irrevocably reshaped his country’s destiny with little resistance.