Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG) Secretary Eduardo Año once again tested positive for COVID-19 less than two weeks ago. That development naturally led to questions on whether other members of the Cabinet, but most especially President Rodrigo Duterte, have also contracted the infection.
Mr. Duterte only this week said one of his ailments could lead to stage one cancer. The state of his health is of course a public issue. But what makes it even more relevant is what his being well or ill can mean to the health of the Republic, which the citizenry should be closely monitoring during the Duterte autocracy.
Unfortunately, the focus of current discourse has entirely been on his partisans’ fears that he has the coronavirus. To allay those fears, Spokesperson Harry Roque said Mr. Duterte was in “perpetual isolation.” What he meant was that the President was under quarantine as the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) requires of anyone who has been in contact with an infected individual.
No matter. The latest furor over Mr. Duterte’s health is only one instance among several others. But it was nevertheless an opportunity for the media and the public to consider the consequences of his being truly ill and unable to discharge his duties. Instead rumors that Mr. Duterte had flown to Singapore over the weekend of Aug. 15-16 because of a medical emergency flooded both old and new media. To dispel those rumors, Mr. Duterte appeared in his usual late night press conference to declare that while he would not hide his flying off somewhere, he did not owe anyone any explanation even if he did, because that is solely his business. He has also said the same thing about his health — that it is no one else’s concern but his own. His making public the possibility that Barrett’s disease of the esophagus could lead to cancer was a departure from that declaration.
Mr. Duterte’s health has nevertheless been the subject of rumor and speculation even before he was elected. During his campaign for the Presidency in 2016 he refused to answer a question about his health and instead insulted the journalist who asked it. His reaction provoked questions about why he was so sensitive about it, which in turn led to speculations that he wasn’t in the pink of health, or worse.
The state of health of any candidate for President is not just a matter of idle curiosity. Because whoever wins that post will have power enough to lead the country to either fortune or perdition, his or her physical and mental capacity to govern is a valid public issue.
His election to the Presidency made Mr. Duterte’s health more relevant and of interest to the media as well as that part of the citizenry aware of the immense responsibilities of the President of the Philippines and what the inability of the incumbent to discharge them can mean to this country. Beyond that, however, is the more crucial question of whether, should the incumbent President be incapacitated by health or any other issue, there will be a peaceful transfer of power. The survival of the Republic could depend on it, the alternative being chaos and who knows what else as the many contending forces that already divide the country vie for political supremacy.
In anticipation of such an eventuality, Article VII Section 8 of the Constitution assigns to the Vice-President the duty of serving the President’s unexpired term should he or she be unable to discharge the duties of the Office. The Senate President and the Speaker of the House are next in the line of succession should the Vice-President not qualify.
But Mr. Duterte has not assured the country that should he resign the Presidency or be incapacitated, what the Constitution provides will prevail. In those times when, contrary to his and his subalterns’ and allies’ claims that he’s perfectly fit for his job, he has openly declared that he might resign rather than wait for the expiration of his term in 2022 because he is “tired,” he has also said that he would prefer someone else other than Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, the duly-elected Vice-President of the Philippines, to succeed him.
He has even named Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., the son of his idol and mentor, the late dictator Ferdinand Sr., as his chosen one. In one more indication of his indifference to the Constitution, he only recently identified other possible government caretakers, among them the Executive Secretary and the Secretary of Defense, none of whom are in the line of succession mandated by the Charter.
It won’t do for the optimistic to believe that Mr. Duterte is just one man among millions whose opinion will not matter if and when the time comes for someone to complete his term. The awful reality is that as incoherent, confused and confusing as they are, his autocratic views on governance are shared by the self-serving big bureaucrats with whom he has surrounded himself. Over the last four years, his and his allies’ occupation of this country’s seats of power has practically dismantled the fragile Constitutional order that has willy-nilly allowed the
peaceful transfer of power since 1992, when Corazon Aquino turned the country over to the Fidel Ramos Presidency upon the expiration of her six-year term.
The destruction of that order was not and is not being done solely through the unbridled use of force, the killings and the lawlessness that the regime has enshrined as first and last principles in enforcing its will. Its ruin is also evident in the corruption that has metastasized throughout government, most significantly at its highest levels, where, for example, much of the trillions of pesos in foreign loans and reallocated budget items that could have otherwise built schools and hospitals; provided sustained economic aid to the families of the millions who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic; controlled the transmission of the COVID-19 contagion; and even mitigated if not prevented the economic recession, have ended up in the pockets of a few.
But the consequences of the unprecedented levels of corruption the entire country is witnessing are not limited to their economic and social impact. There is also the worsening culture of impunity, as both the corrupt and the murderous who are firmly entrenched in the regime as enforcers, yes-men, cronies and associates escape retribution for their crimes.
As a result of this troubled state of affairs, should Mr. Duterte be incapacitated by health issues, his minions in the civilian, police and military bureaucracies will very likely oppose the peaceful transfer of power to a Vice-President whom they fear will take the post of President seriously enough to end the lawlessness and impunity that have enabled them to amass wealth and power beyond measure.
In anticipation of what to them would be a political and economic disaster, they are reviving the “revolutionary government” scheme that is obviously intended to trash the Constitution and enable someone with the same appetite for unaccountable power to succeed Mr. Duterte, who, by his acts and policies over the last four years, has achieved what no other President has imagined possible. He has made the state of health of one man — himself — crucial to the health as well of what little remains of Philippine democracy and the Republic.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).