Throwback: What Duterte’s last 3 SONAs tell us

DUTERTHREE. President Rodrigo Duterte has given 3 SONAs in his 3 years in office. Photos (left to right) by Malacau00f1ang, Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse, Malacau00f1ang photo

DUTERTHREE. President Rodrigo Duterte has given 3 SONAs in his 3 years in office.

Photos (left to right) by Malacau00f1ang, Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse, Malacau00f1ang photo

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte has now given 3 State of the Nation Addresses (SONAs) and is about to deliver his 4th on Monday, July 22.

Duterte’s SONAs are always widely anticipated for his likely off-the-cuff remarks. Who will he curse this time? Which politician or critic will bear the brunt of presidential jokes and teasing? How long will this SONA last?

But they’re also eagerly awaited as opportunities to know the Chief Executive’s priorities, his top-of-mind concerns, and what he considers achievements of his Cabinet members.

Rappler looks back at Duterte’s 3 previous SONAs to identify patterns, notable observations, and dramatic events that defined them. 

Which issues has Duterte mentioned in all of his SONAs? Are his SONAs always full of bad words? What’s changed through the years?

1. Recurring issues: drug war, Mindanao, red tape, tax reform, health care

Five issues or topics have withstood the test of time. Duterte has mentioned these in all his SONAs so far, indicating they are constant priorities for him. 

He has never failed to say his crackdown on illegal drugs will be “relentless.” 

Mindanao is a constant worry but due to a variety of issues. In 2016, he used his SONA to push for the passage of a Bangsamoro law. In 2017, he defended his decision to declare martial law in the region. In his 2018 SONA, he promised more funding for Mindanao projects and vowed to sign the Bangsamoro Organic Law, by this time passed by Congress, within two days.

Red tape is a fixture too. In his first SONA, he said he didn’t want to see people lining up in government offices. In the second one, he called on Congress to amend procurement laws that he finds tedious. In his 3rd SONA, he issued a warning to agencies with the most red-tape-related complaints from citizens.

Tax reform is also always in his SONA. In his first two, he used his speech to urge lawmakers to pass the first tax reform bill. In his 3rd SONA, he was defending why the tax reform law, now enacted, should not be repealed. He then asked lawmakers to pass the 2nd tax reform bill by the end of 2018.

Public health is also a SONA fixture. In 2016, he pushed for health insurance for all Filipinos. The year after, he declared as an achievement the “No Balance, No Billing” law and government efforts to help indigent Filipinos afford health care. In his last SONA, he called on Congress to pass the universal health care bill. They eventually did and he signed the landmark measure  into law in February.

2. Duration

Duterte’s longest SONA was his second, lasting two hours long. Next comes his first SONA, which lasted an hour and 40 minutes. His SONA last year was his shortest, at 50 minutes. 

His shortest SONA was the same SONA when the dramatic ouster of then-speaker Pantaleon Alvarez took place. Because of the leadership tussle, the SONA was delayed by more than an hour. 

3. Sticking to the script 

The first two SONAs were long because Duterte’s prepared speech, written by Palace Undersecretary Melchor Quitain with contributions from other staff and agencies, listed accomplishments per department.

His second SONA, in 2017, was extra long because Duterte was now more comfortable doing lengthy ad-libs and commentary. Extemporaneous moments ranged from a lengthy rant about United Nations experts to an anecdote about how his security guards hesitate to kill the many rats in Pasig River because they are considered “presidential mice.”

His 2018 SONA, in contrast, was much shorter because he went off-script much less. Plus, his script writers decided to no longer include accomplishments per department. This was the same year when Malacañang started holding “pre-SONA fora” so that these achievements could be presented to the public by Cabinet members, instead of in Duterte’s SONA.

4. Expletives

Contrary to popular view, only Duterte's 2nd SONA (also his longest, most free-wheeling SONA) was full of curse words – 25 to be exact. The other two had none. 

5. When he went off-script

It’s always notable at what point Duterte decides to depart from his written speech. It indicates that it’s this topic that was irking him at that particular time in his presidency.

In the 2016 SONA, what prompted him to deviate was his need to explain the necessity of emergency powers to address traffic. In 2017, it was irresponsible and dirty mining companies. In 2018, it was red tape and corruption.

6. The China factor

Duterte’s SONAs always mention, even in passing, foreign policy. But in his last two SONAs, China always got special attention.

In 2017, he spoke of how “warmer relations” with China led to “improved negotiation environment” on the West Philippine Sea. He even gave a shoutout to Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, thanking him for China’s promise to help in his government’s infrastructure program.

In 2018, he again mentioned “reenergized” relations with China and praised cooperation between Manila and Beijing on fighting crime and drugs. Nevertheless, he said then, the Philippines will not waver in defending its maritime rights. 

If his first SONA lacked any mention of China, what did Duterte say then about the West Philippine Sea? He “affirmed” the Hague ruling, then mere weeks old. In his next two SONAs, the Hague ruling would get no mention.

7. Loose ends

There are some measures Duterte has repeatedly called on Congress to pass in one or two SONAs but until now, remain stuck. These include the National Land Use Act, creation of the Department of Disaster Management or Disaster Resiliency, charter change toward federalism, emergency powers for traffic, and reinstatement of the death penalty.

8. Nostalgic promises

Duterte made some pretty interesting promises in his first SONA which deserve revisiting now. 

He promised he would not be vindictive (“I wish to assure everyone though that vindictiveness is not in my system.”).

He also said he would not fixate on shortcomings of past administrations (“Finger-pointing is not the way. That is why I will not waste precious time dwelling on the sins of the past.”)

His first SONA saw him promise to be sensitive to the government’s "obligations to promote, and protect, fulfill the human rights of our citizens, especially the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable." 

9. Presidential pallor

As concerns over his health mount with each passing year of his presidency, Duterte’s appearance is also much noted during the SONAs. After all, SONA footage is 90% Duterte’s face. Photos from SONA to SONA show a slightly gaunter but definitely grayer Duterte. In his 2018 SONA, a darkening on the sides of his face was apparent.

Any interesting observations you’ve made about Duterte’s past SONAs?

For highlights of President Duterte’s 4th SONA, check out our live blog.

Rappler takes a deeper look at the first half of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency – its highs and lows, its achievements and shortcomings: 
Duterte Year 3: The Halfway Mark 

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at