Column: Should Leni dine with the President?

Published on March 28, 2017.

Here’s a sign of our parlous times: An invitation to dine with the President of the Philippines has become politically fraught. Instead of the privileged act of mutual courtesy it has traditionally been (the President honors the citizen with the invitation, the citizen pays his or her respects to the President by accepting the invitation), it is now a simplistic political test. If you show up (say at a private dinner with senators), you will be seen as an ally of the President’s. If you are seen laughing at some of the President’s risqué or offensive jokes, you will be criticized by his critics. And if you are the duly elected vice president, you will be warned about the risks of falling into a trap.

In keeping with the schizophrenic quality of some of President Duterte’s rhetoric, the invitation to Vice President Leni Robredo and her three daughters came after he both ruled out the possibility that she was involved in any destabilization campaign against him and also suggested that she was eager to replace him. It also comes in the wake of the controversial dinner between the President and the members of the newly reconstituted majority in the Senate.

Should Robredo accept the President’s invitation?

Several reasons help explain why the question has become unfortunately necessary in our time. Here are four to start with:

The President has made partisans of everyone. After confessing right after the election that he needed to change his tone and act more like a statesman, President Duterte has recommitted himself to a narrow vision of the presidency: He says the position of statesman does not exist, and he did not run to be one. He has said he was the president of 16 million (the number of voters who cast their ballot for him last May), and often deploys language that assumes two nations rather than one: the masses versus the elite, peace and order champions versus bleeding-heart human rights defenders, Duterte supporters versus Yellows, Mindanao versus Manila. Not least, he promotes an either-or, somos-o-no-somos mentality. The result has been ramped-up partisanship unseen since the Snap Election of 1986.

The opposition has demonized the President. To increased partisanship, (some) opposition politicians have responded in kind. Senators Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillanes—the two incumbent officials who had heavily criticized Mr. Duterte even before he won Malacañang—have concluded that there is no working with President Duterte. We may or may not agree with them that the conditions have reached the point of crisis, or that the President is no longer capable of reversing himself on a so-called war on drugs that kills mostly poor and unarmed noncombatants, but we recognize that when the language of “good versus evil” enters public discourse, the dividing line becomes real. People must take sides.

The President says one thing, but does another. In the same way that key administration officials are moving to dislodge anti-mining warrior Gina Lopez from her position as environment secretary despite the President’s repeated protestations of support for her, allies and alter egos of the President continue to work on the transparently flimsy impeachment initiative against Robredo. It is still possible to imagine Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez as acting on his own, but Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre? The controversy-saturated secretary backs the impeachment of Robredo because he reads that as his principal’s true intention. Ditto for the nobodies and wannabes trying to catch the President’s (or the Marcos family’s) attention. They are doing what they are doing on behalf of the President.

Social media use encourages simplistic thinking. Consider the collective meltdown a couple of weeks ago, after Sen. JV Ejercito posted pictures of majority senators dining with the President. Much of the negative feedback assumed that presence at the dinner meant support for the President’s entire program of government. This is a mistake; senators are not Supreme Court justices, and it is part of their responsibility to talk policy with the President.

Given all these, should the Vice President accept the invitation? Her options are limited, but declining it would be the trap: The bridges would have been burned, but she would be perceived as having started the fire.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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