President Duterte and being a statesman: Philippine Daily Inquirer

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during his visit at the Philippine Marines headquarters in Taguig city, south of Manila, Philippines on Sept 27, 2016.
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during his visit at the Philippine Marines headquarters in Taguig city, south of Manila, Philippines on Sept 27, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

John Nery
Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network 

Last Friday, President Duterte revisited his quarrel with the European Union and said, among other things, that he did not care for the act-like-a-statesman argument.

“Tapos hindi daw ako statesman. Excuse me? Hindi daw ako statesman. Ang pagkaalam ko, tumakbo ako ng presidente, wala mang posisyong statesman doon sa ’min, bakit mo ko pipilitin maging statesman?” Duterte said. (“And I’m no statesman? Excuse me. I’m no statesman, they said. What I know is, I ran for President. There is no position of statesman there at home. Why will you force me to be a statesman?”)

Then he added, in English: “I never took a course of statesmanship and I do not intend to be one.”

We understand where the President is coming from. He campaigned for the presidency on his tough-as-nails, curse-like-a-sailor persona; he did not run as Mr Nice Guy.

If we see the national situation from his perspective, there may really be no time, no margin, for niceties and nuances.

But in fact the President must learn to act like a statesman because it comes with the job. His new position is not only head of government but also head of state. 

It is in that second, higher capacity that he is expected, not only to meet the timeless meaning of statesmanship (not thinking of the next election or the next Senate committee hearing or the next news cycle) but also the more time-bound one: speaking carefully on behalf of an entire nation he represents.

Allow me to cite three authorities, who in my view together form an unrebuttable argument.

First: The great Justice Robert Jackson of the US Supreme Court, in his concurring opinion on a famous case that drew a new limit on the American president’s commander-in-chief powers, wrote of the symbolic nature of the presidency. The conditions he painted, especially those relating to “focus” and “prestige,” also apply to the Philippine office.

“Executive power has the advantage of concentration in a single head in whose choice the whole Nation has a part, making him the focus of public hopes and expectations. In drama, magnitude and finality, his decisions so far overshadow any others that, almost alone, he fills the public eye and ear.

"No other personality in public life can begin to compete with him in access to the public mind through modern methods of communications. By his prestige as head of state and his influence upon public opinion, he exerts a leverage upon those who are supposed to check and balance his power which often cancels their effectiveness.”

Whether President Duterte likes it or not, he has become the focus of the hopes and expectations of “the whole Nation” not as mere head of the government but head of the entire state—and must act accordingly.

Second: The dissent of Justice Dante Tinga in the David v. Arroyo cases in 2006 (over the state of national emergency proclaimed by then President Gloria Arroyo) makes for interesting reading today, because of the burden of responsibility he sees placed on the president’s mantle as “Chief Government Spokesperson of the democratic ideals” and “Chief Defender of the democratic way of life.” 

These titles issue from the president being head of the entire state.

“The President, as head of state, is cast in a unique role in our polity matched by no other individual or institution. Apart from the constitutional powers vested on the President lie those powers rooted in the symbolic functions of the office. There is the common expectation that the President should stand as the political, moral and social leader of the nation, an expectation not referred to in … the oath of office, but expected as a matter of tradition.

"In fact, a President may be cast in crisis even if the Chief Executive has broken no law, and faithfully executed those laws that exist, simply because the President has failed to win over the hearts and minds of the citizens.”

Tinga illustrates his argument with an example no one, not even President Duterte today, can question: “Many times, the President exercises such prerogative as a responsive measure, as after a mass tragedy or calamity. Indeed, when the President issues a declaration or proclamation of a state of national mourning after a disaster with massive casualties, while perhaps de rigueur, is not the formalistic exercise of tradition, but a statement that the President, as the representative of the Filipino people, grieves over the loss of life and extends condolences in behalf of the people to the bereaved. This is leadership at its most solemn.”

This is the kind of empathetic leadership that Mr. Duterte excels at (case in point, the soldiers killed and wounded in an encounter with the Abu Sayyaf), and in which President Benigno Aquino III often failed..

Third, and last: I reference a higher authority—President Duterte himself. A day or so after the elections, and several hours after weeping at his mother’s tomb and asking for her help, he told the public he was going to change his ways.

“I need to control my mouth. I cannot be bastos (rude) because I will be representing our country.”

“If you are the president of the country, you need to be prim and proper, almost maging holy na ako (almost becoming holy).”

The third time I met Mr. Duterte, at the first presidential debate in Cagayan de Oro, I teased him about his wearing of a barong (something his staff was not in a position to commit to). He laughed, and said of course he was going to wear a barong as requested because the debate was “a sovereign function.”

In sum, then: Mayor Duterte may have run for president, but having won, he now, by operation of the same sovereign function, represents the country not simply as his own man, but also and especially as the representative of the Filipino people: the state’s man.