How Duterte handles crisis, controversy during his presidency

Pia Ranada

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How Duterte handles crisis, controversy during his presidency
How does President Rodrigo Duterte define a crisis? How does he handle one? Political science experts analyze how Duterte responds to major controversies.

MANILA, Philippines – Crisis and controversy are never in short supply for Philippine presidents. But it’s how chief executives handle them that defines their presidency and spells out their legacy. 

As President Rodrigo Duterte embarks on his 3rd year – and the halfway mark – of his presidency, Rappler takes a look at how he has handled crises that have rocked his administration. 

From the start, Duterte projected himself as a “man of action” and not a bureaucrat (he leaves that role to his Cabinet). He is always on the scene, distributing relief goods in typhoon-stricken towns or flying home from Russia to call the shots during the Marawi siege.  

But Duterte is also a man of words, using his distinct speaking style to weave narratives about his enemies. His crude language, middle-finger-flashing bluster, and metaphor-rich insults are a weaponization of language, used to spectacular effect. 

His actions and words provide insight into how he’s dealt with controversies in his presidency. 

What’s a crisis for Duterte?

But a crisis for some might not be a crisis in Duterte’s book. Ateneo de Manila political science professor Carmel Abao said the President seems to have two categories when it comes to crisis.

“It seems that Duterte only looks at two situations as ‘crisis’ situations: the drug crisis and the presence of terrorists’ in Marawi,” she told Rappler. 

Other controversies that have hounded his presidency are mere “image repair” challenges for him. These include the “God is stupid” remark, kiss with a married OFW, misogynistic remarks, and his “unpresidential” behavior.

For Duterte, these controversies pose no real problems, other than that they hurt his image. 

Abao said there is a disconnect between how most Filipinos and Duterte define a controversy – a disconnect the firebrand President has used to his advantage.

“Duterte’s politics has been very disruptive because he has redefined what constitutes a ‘crisis.’ Normally,  citizens and government agree on what a crisis is and may diverge only in responses to crisis. In Duterte’s case, citizens and government don’t even agree on what constitutes a ‘crisis,’” said Abao.

This is why some Filipinos are outraged by his crisis-causing behavior, while some, including his core base of supporters, think the outrage is over the top.

For Duterte and his ardent supporters, his most shocking pronouncements and actions are “not out of the ordinary” and therefore not a crisis. 

Here are some major crises and controversies under the Duterte administration and Duterte’s responses:

(Note: We only listed down Duterte’s, and not Malacañang’s nor Roque’s responses)

Drug problem Presents this as a ‘crisis’, declares ‘war’, releases drug list and matrices
Allegations of EJKs in drug campaign Verbally attacks, threatens critics and human rights advocates; catalyzes Senator Leila de Lima probe, leading to her arrest
Allegations of hidden, unexplained wealth Verbally attacks Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, Anti-Money Laundering Council; his allies file cases against Trillanes
Insults to foreign leaders Denies cursing then US president Barack Obama then eventually boasts about it; consistently sticks to his ‘style’ but agrees to tone down in the case of UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein after appeal from National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr; generally continues behavior
Bombing in Davao City market Goes to the scene immediately, calls emergency meeting, declares state of national emergency
Murder of South Korean Jee Ick-Joo Over two weeks after murder is linked to Tokhang, Duterte apologizes for it, vows cops involved will go to jail
Specific incursions by China in West Philippine Sea Downplays incursions in public statements but holds confidential meetings with officials involved
Criticism of West Philippine Sea approach Verbally attacks critics
Testimonies of Arthur Lascañas and Edgar Matobato Claims the two are lying
Marawi siege Declares martial law in Mindanao, flies back from Russia, visits Marawi 7 times until liberation
Kian delos Santos and other drug-related teenage slays Days after Kian’s death, vows cops responsible will go to jail; invites his parents to Malacañang
International Criminal Court’s preliminary examination Verbally attacks ICC, pulls Philippines out of ICC, prepares personal rebuttal
OFW rescue video diplomatic crisis Makes no public statement but calls meeting with Cabinet secretaries involved
OFW kiss, misogynistic remarks Makes fun of ‘ugly’ and ‘jealous’ critics, continues behavior
Soaring inflation Says economy in ‘doldrums’ then eventually echoes messaging of economic managers
Priest killings Verbally attacks priests and Church
‘God is stupid’ remark Initially unrepentant, then during meeting with religious leaders and after ratings decline in SWS survey, says ‘sorry’

Image repair

Despite claiming he couldn’t care less what people think of him, Duterte cares so much that he has become quite adept at image repair. 

This also explains why, in his public speeches, he reacts to news headlines and prominent public campaigns about him (#BabaeAko  movement, criticisms  to his China approach, etc). Duterte, in fact, reads the news every morning and night. 

Duterte repairs his image in 3 ways, judging from his reaction to major controversies:

  • Responds with deprecating amusement, followed by an exaggeration of the behavior that caused the controversy 
  • Responds with outrage, followed by an offensive to the entity that attacked him
  • Responds initially with either one of the preceding responses, then backtracks or softens after sensing consequences

Duterte deploys outrage, threats, and insults when he senses an assault on his character or integrity. This is defense by way of offense, hence we hear him laying out the sins and faults of his critic rather than responding to the criticism itself.  

Thus, Senator Leila de Lima is an “immoral woman”. Senator Antonio Trillanes IV has “perfected the art of crime.” The Church or the International Criminal Court (ICC) are “hypocrites” for accusing him of wrongdoing when they themselves cover up wrongdoing.

Human rights advocates value only human rights, not human lives. Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario “did nothing” to stop China from taking control of Scarborough Shoal. The media is “biased” and controlled by the elite. (READ: The Duterte Insult List)

Duterte is not the only Philippine president to play the “blame game.” Abao said this is a “traditional” response to controversy. 

Aside from outrage, Duterte also uses humor and ridicule to address an image-repair challenge. Critics of his OFW kiss are merely “jealous” and have “bad breath”. He never took a subject on “statesmanship” in school so how can he be expected to act differently? Then, he continues his controversial behavior, and even exaggerates it to drive home his point that he won’t change his “style” for anybody.

Abao said this is his way of “normalizing” his behavior as part of his populist image that he is “the people”. His communications team then “spins” this as the President’s sincerity and authenticity.

His ultimate image-repair move, his last resort when he senses consequences, is to backtrack or soften his position.

He publicly apologized for Jee Ick-Joo’s murder at the hands of police and even met with the South Korean’s widow. He declared that Kian delos Santos’ murderers will “rot” in jail and met with his parents too.

He made a curt and qualified apology for calling God stupid. Then when National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr said his insults against the United Nations human rights chief could harm a Jordan helicopter donation deal, it was Duterte who adjusted. 

Note that he did not make these responses immediately after the controversies happened. It was only after public outrage or a word from a Cabinet member that he changed tack.

Politics professor Tony La Viña said this is one quality that sets Duterte apart from other Philippine presidents.

“I think Duterte has one quality that many of our top presidents in the past do not have – the ability to adapt, to swerve, to shift gears when faced with opposition. That’s why he survives and has always survived,” he said.

Duterte is one politician who is not scared of contradicting himself. While many leaders prefer consistency, Duterte adapts to public outcry if he thinks he can’t ignore it and even if he risks looking erratic.

“Consistency, word of honor, promises do not matter to him – he will do what it takes to duck and avoid being cornered,” said La Viña. 

Pulse Asia Research, Incorporated chief research fellow Ana Tabunda attributes Duterte’s steady high public approval ratings to his quick response to major controversies. (READ: Duterte in surveys: After two years, honeymoon persists)

“Duterte is quick. It doesn’t get to him,” said Tabunda.

The militaristic response

Duterte’s response to incidents he deems truly at the crisis level is very different from his responses to image-repair challenges.

Duterte becomes the famed, iron-fisted mayor of Davao City.

He is hands-on, on the scene, and consistent in his language. We see this in how he handles his anti-drugs campaign and how he dealt with the Davao City bombing and Marawi siege.

The policy direction of the anti-drugs campaign comes straight from his mouth – whether it be changes in who leads the campaign, punishments for abusive cops, and crackdowns on narcopoliticians.  

Mere hours after a bomb exploded in a Davao City night market, Duterte was on the scene, ignoring the warnings of his own security team so he could see and be seen. 

Informed of the terrorist takeover of Marawi City, Duterte immediately declared martial law, cut short his much-anticipated visit to Moscow, and called an emergency Cabinet meeting. Seven times over the next months, Duterte would visit the besieged city, clad in full battle gear and bearing gifts for soldiers and police.  

ACTION MAN. President Rodrigo Duterte visits Marawi City 7 times before it is liberated from terrorists. Malacañang file photo

In these crises, Duterte’s messaging matches his actions as he declares an “unrelenting” and “harsh” campaign against drug personalities and terrorists.

It’s this type of crisis that he has grown used to handling from his days as mayor.

“He was mayor for 23 years in a frontier city with a long history of violence so an important aspect of his leadership I think was how to deal with those kinds of conflicts, literally involving violence force, coercion,” said former University of the Philippines political science department chairman Temario Rivera. 

The violent response is the response Duterte knows best.

“The militaristic mode to crisis management is also not something new. But I think in the past, such mode was deemed as a sort of ‘last resort’. In Duterte’s case, it is his ‘default’ mode. It is his approach to governance,” said Abao. 

Perhaps it’s this militaristic mindset that makes Duterte see only war as the other option in handling China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea.

Beijing’s activities would typically count as national security crises but Duterte often tries to downplay these incidents in public statements. (See Duterte: Why should I defend West PH Sea sandbar?  and Duterte: China taking of PH fisherman’s catch ‘not outright seizure’)

Yet Duterte has also called confidential meetings to discuss such incursions.

Thus, in the case of China’s activities in the West Philippine Sea, gone is the tough-talking, defender Duterte. 

Abao also noted how Duterte’s “highly personalistic” responses to certain controversies has led to superficial solutions.

“He oversimplifies the tasks that need to be done to solve problems and his responses never entail the mobilization, much less the reform or strengthening of democratic institutions,” said Abao.

For instance, in response to corruption allegations, Duterte often merely fires the government official. Most of these disgraced officials still face no formal charges, allowing them to escape the full weight of the law (if they are guilty) or robbing them of a chance to clear their name (if they are innocent). Some of these officials have even been reappointed by Duterte.

Thus far, the way Duterte has handled crisis has been beneficial to him. But has it been good for the country and its democracy? –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.