ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Rodrigo Duterte: The Weak Strongman of the Philippines

Mounting concerns about the Philippine President’s health threaten to play into elections due in 2022.

Rodrigo Duterte: The Weak Strongman of the Philippines

President Rodrigo R. Duterte delivering a speech in July 2016, shortly after taking office.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Presidential Communications Operations Office

After Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo announced his resignation due to poor health last month, many Filipinos wondered aloud if Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte would soon arrive at the same decision, considering his recent revelation that his medical condition was “nearing stage one cancer.”

Duterte earlier disclosed that he suffers from a litany of ailments including Buerger’s disease and Barrett’s esophagus. He is also known to be taking sleeping pills and Fentanyl to relieve pain from his spinal issues. Duterte, 75, said he started experiencing frequent headaches after a motorcycle accident seven years ago.

The president’s health and advanced age were not used against him during the 2016 presidential election. They only became a concern after the public began noticing his frequent absences from official events. When asked by the media about this, Palace officials claimed the president maintains an unusual schedule due to the late nights he habitually worked during his two decades as mayor of the southern Philippine city of Davao. Indeed, Duterte often delivers his live televised speeches late at night.

If his prolonged absence in the capital Manila is questioned, his spokesperson will often cite the president’s desire to attend to the needs of his Mindanao constituents. Duterte is the first president from Mindanao Island, which has several of the poorest regions in the country.

But it is Duterte himself who tends to trigger speculation about his health by making vague remarks and jokes about the many symptoms he is experiencing, including his uneven skin tone.

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His detractors will link this to his recurring disappearances from public view, which sometimes last for many days. Social media pages often feed rumors about his supposed travel to other countries like Hong Kong and Singapore for cancer treatment. And the Palace will always describe these stories as “fake news,” in addition to releasing the latest photos of Duterte having dinner with his family or resting in Davao.

Despite the nagging rumors about his serious illness, Malacañang has refused to release a medical bulletin about the president’s health. A petition urging the disclosure of the president’s medical records was junked by the Supreme Court.

News about Duterte’s poor health always elicits displays of sympathy from his loyal supporters. They praise Duterte’s apparent dedication to serving the country and prod the opposition not to politicize the issue.

But critics respond by citing the constitutional provision about the duty of the president and his office to reveal his true state of health. They add that if Duterte is already weak and unfit to rule, he must resign and allow Vice President Leni Robredo to lead the country. This is complicated since Robredo is a member of the opposition and a vocal critic of the president.

It is ironic that while Duterte projects an image of a strong and tough-talking leader, there is a cloud of doubt about his physical capability to govern.

Since 2016, he has unleashed a bloody “war on drugs” and an all-out war against communist insurgents, both of which have allegedly led to widespread human rights abuses. He agitated state forces and supporters with his bombastic rhetoric against “enemies of the state.” He is notorious and unapologetic for cursing and resorting to profanity when expressing dismay and anger over the country’s social problems.

Yet this image of Duterte as a strongman and fearless head of state has been significantly undermined this year.

During his weekly speeches broadcast late in the evening when he placed the country under strict COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, many commented about the changes in his physical demeanor. It didn’t help that his spokesperson made a gaffe by claiming that the president is kept “in perpetual isolation” by his security team during the pandemic.

Duterte’s team dismissed the speculations by insisting that the president‘s health is stable and that he remains stronger than a carabao. For those familiar with the country’s recent history, it only brought back memories of how Palace officials conspired to hide the real condition of former President Ferdinand Marcos, another strongman who was diagnosed with a rare disease and ousted from power in 1986.

The growing concern about Duterte’s weak health has coincided with the pandemic shock and its disastrous impact on the economy. The Duterte government is accused of bungling its COVID-19 response. It seems overwhelmed and unprepared to deal with the health crisis, the economic recession and the challenges involved in reopening public schools next month. His government also continues to be called to account for the ongoing spate of extrajudicial killings and attacks on journalists.

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Duterte has so far sought to overcome these various crises by launching ferocious attacks on activists, shutting down of critical media networks and passing a draconian anti-terror law.

Duterte’s health is deteriorating but he seems hellbent in defending his presidency. But if Duterte’s health continues to decline, or he is otherwise perceived to be ailing, this could be a quandary for the ruling party as the nation moves toward the 2022 presidential elections.