On Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reappeared in public, ending a week-long absence that had once again fueled rumors about the health of the country’s oldest serving president just a year into his single, six-year term. Though officials once again attempted to downplay or dismiss such concerns during the latest disappearance, the reality is rumors are likely to persist, if not exacerbate, if the administration does not find a more sustainable way of dealing with future cases.
Though concerns about the health of Duterte, who is 72, are not new, his several prolonged public absences since taking office have only heightened them. But rather than finding a way of managing this problem, he and his officials have repeatedly reverted to a familiar pattern of rebutting various lines of speculation and simply reassuring the public.
During his latest disappearance, which lasted from June 20 till June 27, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said Duterte just needed some rest and private time, while presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told Philippine media the president was “just busy doing what he really needs to do.” Surfacing from his last round of public absences on June 15, Duterte went further, suggesting that his health was “immaterial,” joking about the rumors that had emerged, and staying vague on what he had been doing during his disappearance.
The suggestion that the longevity of any head of state – especially an older one – is irrelevant or unimportant, is nonsense, plain and simple. This is especially the case in the Philippines, which is still a young democracy and his seen its leaders struggle to complete their entire terms in office, albeit for reasons other than their health (See: “Will the Philippines’ Next President Maintain Aquino’s Reform Momentum?”).
Duterte is only the sixth Philippine president since the era of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which ended in 1986. While his immediate predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, served his full term relatively smoothly, the two presidents prior to Aqunio, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada, saw their terms met with coups, massive street protests, and eventually, prosecution. Estrada did not even finish his time in office.
Duterte is also not the only president in the Philippines to face scrutiny regarding his health, contrary to those who try to frame this as a personal attack on him. As Duterte himself has noted, Marcos’ health was also prone to much speculation, not just among the Philippine public but also internationally.
The specific circumstances surrounding Duterte’s time in office thus far – whether it be the polarization of views with respect to his administration in spite of his widespread popularity, or his estranged relationship with Vice President Leni Robredo – naturally add another layer of uncertainty to what the Philippines would experience should his health deteriorate (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s Popularity in the Philippines”).
And then there is Duterte himself. Duterte is a 72-year old head of state who typically maintains quite a punishing schedule. Though such a high-profile presence – often with multiple speeches or public engagements a day – might be beneficial for his populist style of governance, it also means that even a few days of him not being seen in public naturally invites scrutiny irrespective of his health.
Apart from that, Duterte himself has further intensified worries about his health by publicly admitting to a whole list of health issues dating back to his presidential campaign, including Buerger’s disease, caused by heavy smoking, back problems, and frequent migraines. To be sure, like many of the president’s other statements, his inexact language makes it difficult to assess their veracity. But the point is that they feed into the very narrative that Duterte and his team are trying to battle against.
These prolonged public disappearances also have not helped. Though Duterte might have been able to get away with missing a few engagements on the campaign trail – hardly unique for presidential contenders – long public absences as head of state naturally attract more scrutiny among the media and the wider public.
This is especially the case since his disappearances have tended to coincide with important events or crises. For instance, Duterte’s previous prolonged absence in mid-June, which lasted three days, was during the Philippine military’s battle to defeat Islamic State-linked militants occupying the city of Marawi on his home island in Mindanao, arguably the biggest crisis of his presidency so far. He also failed to appear for Independence Day celebrations on June 12, which would have been his first.
Given all of the aforementioned reasons, it is only natural for media outlets to speculate about his health, and it is far from surprising that his opponents would keep demanding fuller disclosures of his medical records. There is also clearly a legitimate basis for concerns about his health.
To be sure, administration officials have a point when they complain that such incidents tend to be overhyped (even though they have at times contributed to that speculation by not being clear, coordinated, and transparent about the president’s whereabouts). And there is evidence to suggest that some parts of their accounts of Duterte’s agenda during his absences are accurate, including his private engagements. There are also limits to what they can disclose, because, as with other heads of state, the president does have some work that ought to remain confidential.
But all this also misses the real point. The issue is not really what Duterte does during his absence or even what his administration thinks of it, but what the public at large perceives of their democratically elected leader. That ought to be an important concern for any administration of a vibrant democracy to manage rather than just being an afterthought or inconvenience.
The best administrations don’t just waste their time fretting about the coverage that occurs once crises emerge; they work proactively to shape and manage perceptions, which involves balancing things like privacy and transparency. Rather than complaining about the search for what is behind Duterte’s public disappearances each time it occurs, his administration should try to get out in front of the next episode and find a more sustainable way of dealing with this issue for the rest of his term.