Sui Generis

Policy discussions? Not with Duterte

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
Policy discussions? Not with Duterte

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and People's Republic of China President Xi Jinping discuss matters during a phone call at the Malacañang Golf (Malago) Clubhouse in Malacañang Park, Manila on August 27, 2021. KING RODRIGUEZ/ PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

Here are three key points that illustrate President Rodrigo Duterte's leadership style

When Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency in 2016, I looked up an acquaintance, someone who used to hold an important post in Davao City Hall but had moved to Manila. I wanted to know more about the new president by getting a closer view of his leadership style when he was mayor.

This former Davao official agreed to talk to me on background, meaning I couldn’t quote from the interview. What I learned then has helped me in making sense of Duterte.

More recently, a former member of the Duterte Cabinet as well as a current member, gave me useful insights on Duterte as a leader, thanks to Rappler reporter Pia Ranada’s interviews with Jesus Dureza and Delfin Lorenzana.

What I’ll do is put together a mosaic, showing broad patterns in Duterte’s leadership style based on snapshots, first-hand experiences of these sources, and my own observations.

First, in areas outside his core interest, Duterte is detached from the nuts and bolts of policies, plans, and programs. He leads from a distance, with a remote and vague understanding of the interconnection of social and economic policies, their nuances and key details.

When he was mayor, he left the strategic planning to his staff, hardly participating in the planning sessions. “He came to the office only to sign documents,” the Davao official told me. He also took extended breaks from work.

What the staff liked about Duterte, though, was that he approved their output, as long as he agreed with the goals. He wasn’t one to rigorously go over the staff’s proposals. He left them to their own devices.

Duterte preferred the action outdoors, riding on his motorbike to patrol the streets. He liked going to wakes, consoling the bereaved, and to disaster sites, natural and man-made – his way of showing he was on top of things.

Dureza, former peace adviser to Duterte, shared with Pia a similar observation: The President doesn’t really like to have discussions in the Cabinet. During Cabinet meetings, he doesn’t openly talk about policy and related concerns. He trusts the Cabinet members to do what they think is proper so he leaves them alone, giving them a “lot of flexibility.”

The pandemic is a prime example: Since March 2020, Duterte has displayed how he has not fully grasped the proper response to the global crisis. From the beginning, he downplayed testing and contact tracing while giving emphasis to arresting quarantine violators and, recently, threatening those who have not been vaccinated.

Second, Duterte likes to make decisions on the fly, without consulting Cabinet members. This type of behavior also limits access to the President and can lead to policies that are not based on data and evidence.

Defense Secretary Lorenzana told Pia that he relies on the President’s public statements and his “body language” for strategic guidance, especially on China issues.

Dureza, for his part, said that he couldn’t even call the President when he needed to consult. He revealed that he didn’t have Duterte’s mobile number and that he had to pass through Bong Go, then a Palace aide, to reach the President.

In such cases, Dureza said he talked to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea who advised him to bring up the issues directly to the President. And this could only take place during Cabinet meetings.

From Dureza’s account, the President was often in touch with Medialdea but, more so, with Go, who is merely a “conveyor of information.”

The drug war illustrates this woeful lack of consultation. It is a policy that came straight from the President, without inputs from the Department of Health and other agencies.

Third, Duterte has forged a “Yes, Sir!” culture in the Cabinet, thus his penchant in appointing military men because they “obey first before they complain,” in Dureza’s words.

The President had admitted his preference for generals because they simply follow orders. Taking the cue from their boss, the civilian members of the Cabinet rarely question the policies set by Duterte. They don’t also correct him when he makes mistakes.

This may seem like a small thing but it is emblematic of the culture in the Cabinet. Through the years of his presidency, Duterte has repeatedly referred to the drug cartel in Mexico as Señalosa when it should be Sinaloa. He made the same mistake in his last State of the Nation Address, his fifth year in office.

Duterte has made other mistakes and inconsistencies in his announcements such that it has become a major function of the Palace spokesperson to explain the words of the President or to walk them back.

So, dear readers, we are saddled with a President who is a poor leader, one who just likes to talk endlessly – which he equates with working.

I will end on this sad note. But for a full flavor of Pia’s interview with Dureza, I invite you to listen to the podcast here:

And do watch the interview with Lorenzana here, also by Pia:

Policy discussions? Not with Duterte

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.