The outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte has never been a sacred cow to veteran journalist-author Vergel O. Santos. In the collected commentaries Duterte Watch: Descent into Authoritarianism (a University of Santo Tomas Publishing House book), the head of the nation is presented warts and all.
In his foreword, Christian S. Monsod considered this book “a must-read for those who want a correct perspective on what is happening to our country, and, as memories fade with the passage of time, it becomes a source of reliable information and lucid commentary on the failures of governance of the Duterte regime before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Trying to understand what makes the leader tick, Santos quoted psychiatrist Natividad Dayan as pronouncing Duterte as having an “antisocial narcissistic personality disorder” which makes him incapable of making “concessions to propriety, civility, or decency; he has no normal sense of any of those virtues.”
He also called Duterte “an idolater” of the late President Ferdinand Marcos for, among other things, allowing a heroes’ burial for the “murdering, plundering” autocrat. This despite the outcry from a citizenry to whom the wounds of martial law are still fresh in their memory.
Based on similar acts of Duterte, the author said he “is not simply different; he is upside-down different. And, only naturally, he throws us off who are accustomed to living right side up.”
Santos observed the marks of an authoritarian. Duterte allied himself with the Marcos family, with another ally, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and similar dubious company like the Estradas. Santos said such a leader surrounded himself with a cabinet of yes men and practically coopted democratic institutions like the Supreme Court after ensuring he had the majority of the House and the Senate.
He gathered “the unlikeliest coalition,” featuring the leftists, political dynasties and traditional political patrons and, unique in themselves, the Marcoses. Santos couldn’t help but acknowledge “the freakish genius of Rodrigo Duterte…breaking up the nation to make everybody happy.”
As early as 2016 at the beginning of the Duterte term, Santos already warned that the President “operates on a hair trigger and runs his presidency on impulse.” He is not above saying “I will kill you!” and when he does thousands of suspected drug pushers and users, without benefit of a day in court, are summarily killed.
On the last few months of his leadership, Duterte has been on an inauguration frenzy of infrastructure built on loans to be inherited by the new regime. But what has he really done for the country? Santos dared to answer, “…for achievements, he has dubious or regressive or downright chilling numbers to show, such that the nation might have been better having stagnated since he assumed office.”
And yet, in spite of a bloody war against illegal drugs and almost pulverizing Marawi City in pursuit of brigands, “Duterte’s approval rating remains very high—more than 80%,” Santos noted. Indeed that percentage has never failed to astonish.
The author also dwelt at length on the events leading to Sen. Leila de Lima’s seemingly perpetual political detention and to the impeachment Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. These are examples of the great power Duterte wielded during his term.
He even was behind the move to deport a frail, elderly Australian nun Patricia Fox from the Philippines for being critical of him. Journalist Maria Ressa, who went on to win the Nobel Prize, was shown as an example of what happens when press freedom is used to ask uncomfortable questions. (The book, by the way, is dedicated to De Lima and Ressa). Duterte’s perceived enemies are coincidentally women, which has led people to believe that he may be a misogynist at heart, for all the kisses he steals from comely admirers.
This has led Santos to call Duterte a one track-minded president who “wants to rule as dictator because he cannot be anything else. It’s a pathological fixation.”
‘My shirt is brighter than your future’
Almost smack in the middle of the book is a light intermission, a rest from the grim prognostications about the leader and the direction of the nation. The essay A Hot Shirt for Christmas is about a T-shirt the author received that could serve as his “weapon of mass distraction” in a game of tennis. It is in yellow that screams loud. Its message is: “My shirt is brighter than your future.”
Santos described himself as “not politically colored…certainly, I’m not political in the strangely narrow-minded sense that turns Duterte into something comparable to a bull that sees red when he sees yellow.”
Neither is he pinklawan when the term wasn’t in vogue yet, but he gives Vice President Leni Robredo high marks, calling her “an odd bright shining light.” Although she had been “starved of budget and ostracized, she has managed still to show up Duterte, who has remained poor in achievement, in spite of an every-increasing outlay for his office…”
Duterte Watch joins a growing library of books on the President who many Filipinos wish to see the last of. Other books include Duterte Harry: Fire and Fury in the Philippines by Jonathan Miller, Beyond Will & Power: A Biography of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte by Earl G. Parreño, The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte by Vicente L. Rafael and A Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Presidency edited by Nicole Curato.
At the very least, this modern-day leader makes for a fascinating subject for impassioned discussions, not just among public intellectuals, for a long time to come.
Duterte Watch: Descent into Authoritarianism is available at the UST Publishing House in Sampaloc, Manila, and at its Shopee store.