[OPINION | NEWSPOINT] Panic time

When a Philippine President begins raising the communist scare or throwing around charges of sedition, whether in relation to it or not, that President must be not only in a bad mood but in bad shape, possibly even in a panic.

It’s all political expediency, unimaginative, predictable, but it never fails to work its terror. One never knows what an insecure President is capable of, and, where President Duterte is concerned, the prospects are particularly dicey.

Duterte surpasses your textbook authoritarian character in, among other respects, brazenness – he makes no secret of being one such character. He came to the presidency preceded by his reputation as a provincial-city mayor who ruled by death squad, and he has threatened to rule as a strongman president as well. The following should be proof enough of the seriousness of his malign intent:

A chief justice too independent-minded for his comfort has been ousted by her own Supreme Court; a senator hounding him for rights abuses going back to his days as mayor has been in police detention for two and a half years now on the implausible charge of conspiring with drug dealers; a colleague of hers whose term as senator just ended is facing all sorts of court cases, though luckier being free on bail; the executive editor of this news organization has been taken to court herself after police visits that could only have constituted harassment and intimidation did not work; thousands are dead in a war on drugs that smacks of a death-squad campaign; Mindanao, one of the country’s 3 main islands, remains under martial law, although it’s been two years since Duterte claimed victory over the mixed band of terrorists, separatists, and plain outlaws who gave him his reason for the emergency; corruption plagues his government. 

Already halfway through his term, Duterte surely wishes he had by now entrenched himself as a dictator, thus positioned for perpetuating himself in power and escaping accountability. He likes to copy Ferdinand Marcos, but he possesses only half – the dependent half, that is – of Marcos’ evil genius.  

Marcos ruled for two decades, 14 years as a dictator. He could not have achieved such longevity without an astute sense of the interplay of power in the Philippine political culture. He understood that the ultimate swing force in any coup is the military, and managed to keep it on his side for a good, long run.  

With Duterte, what Marcosian possibilities he may think he has is trumped by a pathological disorder that impairs any sense of deliberation. A clinically certified narcissist, he operates on a hair trigger, going off, if not of his own accord, on the promptings of certain whisperers. The reason he has not gone off decisively is that he has only the gun, not the bullets – the swing force is not with him.

He is left with two options, both unappealing. In fact, one seems unworkable; it would put off the next election and extend Duterte’s term and allow him to preside over the transition to a federal government. That’s according to a long-cooking plot, an unpopular one if the surveys are a reliable measure. 

It is also a cumbersome and time-consuming proposition; it will have to go through layer upon layer of vetting culminating in a referendum, and the odds are that it won’t pass the Senate. Senators look forward to elections to further their ambitions – all the way to the presidency, if possible. With federalization, they see their standing diminished and their political prospects dimmed.

The other option is a long shot: a presidential draft for Duterte’s daughter, Sara, now mayor of Davao City, succeeding her father. A nonentity otherwise, she would be a desperate choice to succeed her father as President and protect him from suits.

Meantime, Father must be fretting, or else he wouldn’t be scattering himself. The Chinese, he says, will not allow him to go to jail. Obviously he is counting on that as payback for the favors they got from his government – control over the strategic and resource-rich West Philippine Sea, privileged treatment for their workers, businessmen, traders, and project bidders, and a preference for their loans, however onerous

But what else really can the Chinese do to rescue Duterte other than to take him home to China as an exile? In any case, until the bridge of reckoning comes up to be crossed, he tries to forestall. 

But then, as he does, he betrays his insecurity further. He has inspired a bill allowing him to pick his own successor, who would be known only to him and whose identity would be revealed only at the exact moment – and that’s in the event that all the successors designated by the Constitution became incapacitated. 

If I may respectfully suggest to the President: he should take no chances, and choose 10.

First in the line of succession is his oppositionist vice-president, Leni Robredo. In an all-too-blatant attempt to get her disqualified, she has been charged with sedition, along with other oppositionist leaders and some members of the clergy. She doesn’t look intimidated at all, but neither is she laughing at the implausibility of the charge or, indeed, the insane irony of the whole thing. If anyone is guilty of any crime against the state, it is Duterte himself, in his dealings with China: guilty of treason. 

Neither are those party-list congressmen and activists from civic and youth organizations accused as communists or communist supporters taking the accusation lightly, no matter how comical it appears in light of Rodrigo’s romance with the quintessential communist himself, Xi Jinping.

To be sure, Duterte is not one to be taken lightly. He can be unpredictable, being not quite right, and he has considerable company in that condition. – Rappler.com