Looking forward to the 2019 SONA

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Hansley A. Juliano


There is no shortage of anticipation in the lead-up to a scheduled 4th State of the Nation Address (SONA). The one this coming July 22 should be no exception. After all, the 4th SONA of any presidency occurs just a few months after the scheduled Midterm National and Local Elections. Any president, more so if his/her endorsed coalitions won with a comfortable margin, would take this opportunity not only to take pride in this, it will also try to build bipartisan confidence in order to pursue its agenda for the remaining three years — unencumbered by the inflamed partisan attitudes fostered by the recently concluded fight.

It is normally after the midterms that a presidency begins thinking about claiming a legacy, one that will outlast its tenure. This means it is in the interest of any presidency to give concessions to the opposition — if only to ensure good will, protect itself from any policy fallout, and hedge from the possibility that the anointed successor of the president will fail to win the succession polls. This is even more pertinent if the opposition won a larger margin against the administration — rendering it a potential “lame duck.” If we read the record of previous administrations from Ramos to Aquino, this has indeed been the standard.

Like most things, however, these do not readily apply to Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency — especially not with the virtual wipe-out of its opponents in the Senatorial race. With the Duterte administration dead set to transform our institutions by weakening the checks and balances of the 1987 Constitution, it would be out of character for them to imagine any form of succession that they do not overtly control. The characteristic unwillingness of the President (and by extension, his Cabinet and appointed officials) to take, engage with, and incorporate any criticism of his regime’s policies (valid or not) already points to an expected direction.

We can definitely expect them to resume bulldozing all of the policy agendas that were parked just before the midterms (especially the push for federalism), now that they can claim a fresh mandate from the voting public. The Duterte presidency’s persistent disregard of the separation of powers has only been boosted by the midterm election results. More justices of the Supreme Court are slated to be appointed this term. Supermajorities are nearly guaranteed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives — especially with the loss of significant fiscalizing voices from the sectoral/party-list bloc.

While previous presidents enumerated their achievements as well as impressed their governance framework to Congress and the listening public, Duterte has markedly not used the SONA in such a fashion. Most audiences would criticize the President for supposedly engaging in irrational/disorganized ranting. What he, in fact, is doing is appealing to his purported mass and propertied bases, keeping them consolidated and personally loyal to him. This demagoguery is consistent with nearly every 21st century non-democratic regime in the world today, and Duterte’s, needless to say, is no exception.

In a sense, the President uses the SONA primarily as a ritual to produce symbolic capital for his person and his presidency — not for providing a common reference for this administration’s agenda. While this casts the credibility of his governance in a dubious light, it also disarms any opponents of the administration (be it politicians, civil service, or civil society) from keeping him accountable for anything. The fact that both Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles and Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo openly market the upcoming “pre-SONA forums” during the early weeks of July as a showcase of the administration’s achievements to supposedly let the President speak freely during the SONA itself supports this line of thinking.

It is, however, a disservice to presume that the Duterte administration remains invincible — especially with its complicity in multiple policies hurting its credibility. The Recto Bank incident early this month (whether regime personnel admit it or not) continues to punch massive holes in the purported independence of Duterte’s foreign policy. The administration’s preference for Chinese capital and blatant disregard for the welfare of fisher folk at our western seas give weight to any criticism pointing to Duterte’s willingness to be cowed and bullied by Beijing. Further related would be the controversial Kaliwa Dam project (which compromises indigenous peoples and environmental sustainability) — all to justify non-transparent ODAs from Beijing. No amount of histrionics and deflection by cabinet secretaries will change that.

The persistence of multiple sectoral issues that continue to highlight continuity with previous regimes’ complicity with social and economic injustice also belie any notion of “change” and “accountability” they may have promised. Apart from the Kaliwa Dam, that the persistent takeover of public land by property developers is allowed (such as SM Development Corp., Ayala Land, Megaworld, and Vista Land) further belies any chance of changing the rentier-capitalist development trajectory of the country. Most damning, of course, would be the fallout related to the creation of the Security of Tenure Bill, wherein the government chose to adopt en toto the weaker Senate Bill No. 1826, instead of incorporating stronger regulatory provisions from House Bill No. 6908.

There is, therefore, no shortage of bases for engagement, platform creation and coalition-building for the rest of Filipino civil society. These issues, which the Duterte administration should be made accountable for, should continue providing ammunition to alternative voices this coming SONA Day — much as they have in previous years outside the Batasan and along the entire length of Commonwealth Ave. The only question, of course, is if they are still willing to mobilize despite the demobilizing factor of their losses in the midterm elections.

But then again, people do not choose to protest just because they are going to win. If Hong Kong and Sudan tried to show the world (especially the Philippines) anything with their pro-democracy protests, it is that people stand up because they want to be free. And there are so many things the Filipino people need to be freed from.


Hansley A. Juliano serves as Lecturer to the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. He is also engaged in research and advocacy for various sectoral issues (such as labor rights and agrarian reform).