[ANALYSIS] Duterte's health and disclosure: Finding a middle ground

The latest speculation about the health of the President Duterte has faded. With the issue out of the headlines, a more considered look at this may be useful, because its resurfacing is more a question of when, not if.

After, all President Rodrigo Duterte has admitted to a few non-trivial but non-life threatening ailments, from spinal pain due to a motorcycle crash about a decade ago to a smoking-related disease where blood vessels in the arms and legs can swell and become infected. 

There is, however, the speculation that he may possibly have cancer, which becomes headline material and drives social media discussions when the President is absent from public view for more than a few days, travels abroad with noticeable gaps in his schedule, or admits to a hospital visit. It is already difficult to figure out a disease when all the symptoms are known, much more when the diagnoses are done through Twitter or Facebook, based on whispers that somebody has heard from someone who supposedly knows something.

The President has denied any worse illness, and to be fair there is no publicly verifiable information to support the worst of these rumors outside the speculation. In fact, the tendency to believe them is likely correlated to where the listener lies on the political spectrum. Those who trust the President least (or dislike him the most) are likely to believe the worst, while those on the President's side see a septuagenarian made more tired by the labors of the job, and nothing more. 

Whenever the issue does arise, most of the discussions and debates center on the constitutional provision that the public must be informed if the President is seriously ill, and that specific Cabinet members cannot be denied access to him – a reaction to the opacity of the Marcos years. The Constitution also allows the Cabinet to certify that the President can no longer function, which would allow the Vice President to take over. 

Controlled by insiders

This approach of focusing on the trigger for this constitutional provision is problematic. 

The Palace has an official doctor, but the President is likely to trust his own if he is sick. And to whom the President divulges any medical information is discretionary, as former presidential spokesman Harry Roque has learned.

In short, despite the constitutional provision, in practical terms, information on the President's health is controlled by the Palace and insiders, and there is little to no incentive – politically or legally – for any official to break ranks until the very end.

This is the nature of our politics, given various economic and political incentives. And good luck asking any court, even the Supreme Court, to subpoena the President's medical records.

This is the problem when the President's health is treated as a legal issue related to the succession process primarily, rather than as a matter of good and common sense governance.

As the single most powerful official in the land, what happens to him has significant consequences, not just on the succession process, but on policy and politics, and on the economy and investors. 

Impact on investors

For instance, a Chinese investor in a major infrastructure project would rightly be concerned of a negative policy shift toward Chinese investment if a less friendly successor were to take his place (as they have experienced in Malaysia).

In an optimal situation, the President's health should factor less in such a decision, because an approved project would be treated fairly regardless of administration, based on the rule of law. 

But our immature institutions and sometimes winner-take-all politics generate such a risk, of a project proponent suddenly holding an empty bag following a change in administration. There is a fair amount of study that in governments that are highly personalistic – i.e. strongly centered around one person – apprehension about the leader's health can clear affect financial markets. 

For instance, in the mid-1990s, the financial crisis in Indonesia was triggered by a sudden reversal of confidence that, at first glance was not seemingly justified by the broad economic numbers. Michael Ross, a professor at UCLA, has written that something else may have been at work, and he argues that rumors of the Suharto's ill health may have helped fuel the political uncertainty and economic instability that Indonesia suffered during the Asian financial crisis.

This issue is therefore not peculiar to the Duterte administration or to our country alone. 

Middle ground

The President is entitled to privacy, just like any other Filipino, and he should also not be expected to react to every single allegation of being sick.

But the constitutional provision is too legalistic and fails to capture the reality of our politics – that he is a powerful individual, whose health prospects affect politics, policy and economy well before the succession process.

There is therefore a need for some middle ground, of custom rather than tight legal processes, for disclosures about the President's health – such as when he suffers some ailment that may need a few days rest or require a hospital visit. 

It would be useless to codify these processes into law; but some custom targeted more at managing public expectations and helping the country as a whole assess the risks from the President’s health can help. 

After all, the right amount of disclosure, properly timed and with an amount of information that respects the President's right to privacy but also clarifies questions, can head off speculation, rumors and headlines. The government in power may of course be wary that any admitted vulnerability of the President would be exploited by the opposition or could trigger hedging by its allies. But basing policy alone on this fear is too narrow a view of politics and the issue. 

It also raises another interesting question about the Vice President. 

Strained ties with VPs

Out of 6 vice presidents since 1986, arguably only two – former vice presidents Joseph Estrada and Noli de Castro – have had workable relationships with their principals. The rest, from Salvador Laurel to current Vice President Leni Robredo, have visibly strained ties. 

Former President Cory Aquino believed that Laurel was conspiring against her, and President Duterte's disdain for his vice president and her party is widely known.

Clearly, that the President and Vice President can be from separate parties and have antagonistic relationships affect the willingness of the administration to disclose the president's health – again an understandable incentive to be as vague as possible. 

In this regard and in the context of the Vice President's wider role (and the inefficiencies that are generated by the political and personal animosity between the two), the separate election of the president and vice president needs to be reconsidered. – Rappler.com

Bob Herrera-Lim is managing director at Teneo, a global consulting firm based in New York. He advises investors on Southeast Asian politics and policies.