OPINION: Pandemic tests, exposes 'weaknesses' in Duterte's military-reliant leadership

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 27 2020 12:05 AM | Updated as of Jul 27 2020 10:15 AM

MANILA—President Rodrigo Duterte will deliver his penultimate State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday with his leadership severely put to test by a coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 80,000 Filipinos with no signs of slowing down.

But despite the raging health crisis, the president trained his guns on ABS-CBN, making good on his promise to shut down the largest broadcast network in the Philippines, while arming himself with a new anti-terrorism law that he can potentially use against critics of his administration.

In the meantime, Duterte’s supporters are pushing hard to amend the constitution, riding on a supposed clamor from a weary public worried of what lies ahead in the post-COVID-19 future.

“People will remember him for what he did in the pandemic—or for what he failed to do,” said lawyer Michael Henry Yusingco, senior research fellow at the Manila-based Ateneo Policy Center.

The government has been increasingly under pressure to do more as the Philippines now tops the Southeast Asian region with the most number of active COVID-19 cases.

Despite the unenviable statistic, Duterte managed to crack a joke last week, urging the public to reuse face masks after disinfecting them with gasoline or diesel.

“Instead of giving us hope, our leader, our president, has failed to provide that,” Yusingco told ABS-CBN News from Melbourne, Australia where he’s been stranded due to the coronavirus lockdowns.

Palace spokesman Harry Roque earlier insisted that the government's response to the pandemic was "working." Millions of Filipinos, he argued, would have gotten sick with COVID-19 if the government didn't impose lockdowns and other health measures.


Duterte’s fifth SONA is expected to lay down a concrete plan of action on how his administration intends to deal with a health crisis that threatens to go out control, including its heavy toll on employment, businesses, and the economy.

“I think he wasn’t prepared for it,” political science professor Antonio Contreras said of the president’s response to the pandemic, one that has relied heavily on ex-military generals instead of putting health experts in the lead.

Duterte’s military-centric approach to governance was made obvious early on when he launched a bloody street-level war against illegal drugs in 2016, killing thousands of suspects in the next 4 years.

The same paradigm was seen in his strategy to end 50 years of communist insurgency, after initially seeking a political settlement by restarting formal peace negotiations.

In the siege of Marawi by ISIS militants in 2017, Duterte greenlighted aerial bombings that pulverized much of the Islamic City, which is yet to be rebuilt. 

But the pandemic now requires an entirely different approach, “exposing the weakness of pandering to populist sentiments of his base constituency,” said professor Julio Teehankee, visiting fellow at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

“The president had the full confidence of the people and yet that confidence was squandered by the inability to immediately act on the crisis at the beginning, during, and still, we are not yet certain how he will handle the future, especially when it comes to the health aspect and the economy,” Teehankee told ABS-CBN News. 

Said Contreras: “The pandemic was something he wasn’t prepared for... This wasn’t part of the playbook.”


While governments around the world were expected to focus on the pandemic, Duterte also went after ABS-CBN, a media company whose broadcast operations he had repeatedly promised to close down for allegedly favoring his opponents in the 2016 presidential election.

A congressional committee, composed mostly of his political allies, voted to reject the network’s application for a new broadcast franchise despite testimonies from government regulators that the company did not violate the law.

The closure of ABS-CBN's free TV and radio broadcast triggered widespread public condemnation, even if Malacañang insisted that the president had nothing to do with it.

But Duterte himself owned up to the shutdown in a speech the Palace had spliced, apparently to protect him from blame. 

“’Yun namang ABS-CBN binaboy ako. Pero sinabi ko kapag ako nanalo, bubuwagin ko ang oligarchy ng Pilipinas. Ginawa ko. Without declaring martial law, sinira ko yung mga tao na humahawak sa ekonomiya at umiipit sa tao at hindi nagbabayad. They take advantage, sa kanila political power,” he declared on July 13 or 3 days after the widely criticized congressional vote.

(ABS-CBN treated me like a pig. That's why I said that if I win as president, I will dismantle the oligarchy. I did. Without declaring martial law, I destroyed the people who were controlling the economy and squeezing the people and not paying. They take advantage, they had political power.) 

Pulling the plug on ABS-CBN set off a massive layoff among the company’s 11,000 employees in the middle of the pandemic, which already took away a record 7.3 million jobs in April.

“It’s utter failure... it’s implosion, a government that has lost its bearings and its moral compass,” Contreras said, describing the year immediately preceding Duterte’s fifth SONA.

Like a good number of intellectuals, Contreras was drawn to the promise of this no-nonsense former city mayor elected to the presidency on the strength of more than 16 million votes. 

“I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Then, aba’y talaga palang wala talagang pag-asa,” Contreras, who once hosted a program for a government station, told ANC’s Matters of Fact podcast.


It now remains to be seen whether the president’s record-high popularity will endure given the way he’s been handling the pandemic and the closure of ABS-CBN. 

“The issue now is will his [political] Teflon be able to stand?” Contreras said, citing the impact of ABS-CBN’s shutdown on ordinary Filipinos who depended on the network for news and entertainment.

“It is something that may not be measurable right now, but, if properly harnessed, may turn into a factor that can spell victory or defeat in 2022.”

A Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey from July 3 to 6 showed that 3 out of 4 Filipinos wanted Congress to grant ABS-CBN a new franchise.

Contreras said the next SWS and Pulse Asia surveys would be interesting to see if Duterte’s popularity would hold or take a big hit. 

“Pag 90 percent pa naman ang suporta, ewan ko lang. I don’t know. Maybe the surveys are wrong. If they are right, maybe we’re just a messed-up society. It’s about time that we just accept the fact that we deserve the kind of government that we get,” he said.


Duterte will need popular support if he remains intent on pushing for “constitutional reforms,” the latest iteration of what began as a campaign for federalism requiring an overhaul of the charter.

Though the president has been silent on the issue, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), backed by a group called Constitutional Reform Movement, has renewed the drive describing it as a “priority” despite the pandemic.

“This has always been part of the agenda of the president. This was really not a secret,” said Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya, who heads the DILG’s Center for Federalism and Constitutional Reform.

“The pandemic has shown us that the regional unequal economic development has been a bane to Philippine progress.”

Addressing regional inequality, he said, would make sure that “the next time a pandemic comes, the entire Philippine economy will not shut down just because Metro Manila is in a standstill because of a lockdown.”

But Yusingco warned that “railroading the process” at this time could “strengthen public distrust” of genuine constitutional reform. 

“Charter change is already a dead horse. Last year pa,” he said, citing the lack of any strong push from Duterte, who may or may not mention it when he addresses the nation today.