Column: This President needs help

Published on December 20, 2016.

If they haven’t yet, President Duterte’s friends and allies need to organize an intervention. He has been shooting himself in the foot even more than usual these last several days; his closest friends should recognize this self-destructive behavior for what it is: both compelling proof that the messenger is running away from the message, and a cry for help.

The President’s many variations on the theme of giving up are not the cause for concern. All presidents have spoken of the terminal loneliness of the job; every president since Marcos has said something about how forbidding or fundamentally unfriendly Malacañang is. Mr. Duterte’s repeated expressions of regret or wistfulness about running for office and winning the presidency—summed up in his ejaculation, “Susmaryosep! If you only knew, if I could just take it all back”—are perhaps more poignant than those of other presidents, but they follow a pattern. They are, in a word, familiar.

It is rather the President’s statements, where he speaks against his own interest, that should concern his friends and allies. This conduct is not normal.

On Tuesday last week, he startled an audience of businessmen with an unprompted admission that when he was mayor of Davao, he used to do some of the killing of criminals himself: “I know it because—I am not trying to pull [up] my own chair—in Davao I used to do it personally. Just to show to the [policemen] that if I can do it, why can’t you?” He also said: “I go around in Davao [on] a big bike and I would just patrol the streets and [go] looking for trouble. I was really looking for an encounter to kill.”

I realize that Mr. Duterte has made or hinted at similar admissions before; I also remember that when he visited the Inquirer in August 2015, he also spoke about how he took matters into his own hands. When asked directly whether that meant he had done some of the killing himself, he gave a smooth reply: He was a prosecutor for many years, he said. He knew his law well enough not to say anything to put him in legal trouble.

But his remarks at last week’s Wallace Business Forum struck the now-characteristic Duterte refrain: an exercise in modesty (I’m not trying to lift my own chair), followed by a show of bravado (I did it personally). The melody, though, was out of whack: He was bragging about killing.

The following day, he told BBC: “I killed about three of them… I don’t know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies. It happened and I cannot lie about it.” This should strike his friends and allies as even more unnecessary talk. Was he daring his political critics to try impeaching him? Impeachment in a Congress ruled by a supermajority looks impossible, but even President Joseph Estrada’s equally popular mandate looked impregnable a few months before Edsa II.

(Mr. Duterte’s admission on Aug. 21, that he used to “plant evidence” on suspected criminals so they would turn on each other, also seems like a dare, to try a novel disbarment case against an incumbent lawyer-president.)

Then on Saturday, he made another astounding declaration. “In the play of politics now, I will set aside the arbitral ruling,” referring to the landmark case on China’s expansive claims to most of the South China Sea. Even with his qualifying statement, this seems to amount to an impeachable offense. “Setting aside” the ruling means abandoning Philippine territory.

His supporters should see these remarks as self-destruct symptoms, not strategy.

* * *

I had the chance to meet about 40 student leaders from the five Ateneo universities meeting in Manila yesterday. My role was to walk down memory lane with them, having taken part in the first “Inter-Ateneo Colloquium” in 1982 that led to the formation of Buklod Atenista, the inter-Ateneo student council alliance, in 1984. With the help of a 34-year-old journal, I drew three lessons from that original experience: The initiative came from the periphery, a vital and inspiring dynamic; it came from a common tradition, the Jesuit emphasis on both excellence and engagement; and it aspired to what is called transformational leadership, which is based not simply on need but on possibility.

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