THE fact that President Rodrigo Duterte is now back in the public eye after a week-long “private time” has not stopped, and will likely not stop, speculations about his state of health. Not after he was reported to have suffered a mild stroke, which reportedly affected one of his arms, and brought him to Cardinal Santos Medical Center in Greenhills last Thursday, where he reportedly also underwent a “peritoneal dialysis.” (PD is a treatment for early kidney disorder which, according to Wikipedia, uses the lining of your abdomen called peritoneum as a filter, and a cleansing solution called dialysate to clean your blood of waste and excess water. For advanced cases, hemodialysis is used to remove waste and excess water from the blood by circulating blood outside the body through an external filter called a dialyzer that contains a semipermeable membrane.)
Neither Malacañang nor the medical center has issued a medical bulletin on this reported episode. But highly informed sources said Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. briefed some members of the Cabinet about it on Friday. Aside from DU30’s medical condition, which Evasco discussed objectively, sources said the President’s most trusted colleague was eager to know if Vice President Leni Robredo knew anything about it and what was her reaction to it. By then, DU30 had been discharged from the hospital and cleared to fly to Davao, reportedly at a minimum flying altitude. On Saturday, he went to the military camps in Cabadbaran, Agusan del Norte and Butuan to talk to the troops, while the bigger military force remained in Marawi City conducting mopping-up operations against the Islamic State-linked Maute terrorist group.
A so-called secret trip
In Butuan, he successfully evaded reporters’ questions about his health, but the Philippine Star yesterday quoted him as saying he was never sick, but “I went on a secret trip somewhere. I cannot divulge it. I have to go there incognito…I traveled like a private citizen so I can go to that place.” The trip reportedly took two days. It sounded more elaborate than Churchill’s mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. But the story fails to add up; a more seasoned journalist may have to put it down, regardless of its high source, as “fake news.”
We should not be surprised if DU30 should come up with one of his more famous quips, “Can’t you fellows ever take a joke?” After all, his official spokesman Ernesto Abella has long warned us that three out of every five statements from the President should not be taken literally. You have to be “creative” in interpreting what he says, says Abella. As a seasoned journalist with more than 50 years of reporting and parsing the news, I believe we should allow the Cabinet information from Evasco to stand. The President’s claim of a secret trip someplace where only a private citizen may go will simply not wash. We need to have been born yesterday to swallow the narrative. With all due respect, Mr. President, we’re tired too.
Previous to his public “reappearance,” DU30 had missed a number of official functions, including the 119th anniversary of Philippine Independence on June 12. Spokesman Abella had tried to assure us that the President was not suffering from any sickness, but that he was tired, just tired, and needed some rest. No one quibbled with that statement, for everybody else seemed as tired as the President, just trying to keep up with his never-ending unprepared speeches. Not even the excessively nosy press bothered to find out where he was “resting,” and what exactly constituted his “rest.” For some people, “resting” is not “doing absolutely nothing,” but doing something completely different from one’s normal day job, which lifts the spirit, energizes the intellect or refines the senses.
Even though the concept of “time off” for the President, who is supposed to be President 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365/6 days a year, was totally unheard of until then President B.S. Aquino 3rd laid claim to it, no one begrudges the President the right to take good care of his health.
Not only is he entitled to the best possible medical care, the nation above all must make sure he gets it. Now, DU30 has been having various complaints since he came into office on June 30, 2016, including some mild fainting spells since he traveled to Peru in November last year for the APEC summit. If he has been diagnosed for heart and kidney troubles, it is no disgrace, no dishonor, no moral fault for him to submit to the necessary medical tests and procedures to address such problems. We need him to be in perfect physical and mental health.
If the doctors recommend it, he should take a month’s rest or longer, without at all being paranoid about it. He should not imagine it would create any political instability in government. Should anything untoward ever happen to him, heaven forbid, there is a constitutional order of succession which should automatically operate to avoid any vacuum. As of now, the biggest source of instability in government has nothing to do with any possibility that DU30 might not last his term; it has more to do with the fear that the government might eventually break up because DU30 and his minions in Congress refuse to follow the Constitution, with respect to the legal steps needed to complete and “perfect” Proclamation 216 dated May 23, 2017, proclaiming martial law and suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the whole of Mindanao.
The revolutionary President
I have pointed out in this space that this refusal, raised to the highest level of obnoxiousness and barbarity by the Speaker of the House who has threatened to tear to pieces any judicial order from the Supreme Court, is a contempt of the Constitution, which has created a constitutional crisis, for which no solution has suggested itself. It invalidates and de-legitimizes the proclamation issued by the President while visiting Moscow, since it lacks the congressional approval mandated by the Constitution. But since DU30 continues to exercise powers associated with martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ—including arrests of hundreds of people suspected of involvement in the Marawi crisis—he is now functioning as a revolutionary President, outside the realm of the Constitution and the rule of law. He is now in rebellion against the State.
I am not a lawyer. But I have been a Cabinet member for 10 years, a lawmaker for at least 15 years; I had the privilege of running the floor of the Senate for five Senate Presidents. As a private citizen, I have been allowed to argue two important cases before the Supreme Court en banc—a privilege reserved only for lawyers. I constantly read the Constitution as closely as any pedigreed constitutionalist does, and this is how I read it. I invite the nation’s legal minds on our courts, in our schools of law, and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines to examine the validity or lack of validity of what I say. Do we or don’t we now have a revolutionary President?
For now, I invite the President to be totally forthright, without any paranoia, about this physical condition. He must submit to the necessary medical care, without inventing any false stories about secret visits to places that cannot yet be disclosed. The appropriate medical authorities should issue medical bulletins about his state of health.
Lessons from Marcos
Under the Constitution, the President does not have to vacate his position during any period of medical confinement, unless he himself or a majority of all the members of his Cabinet formally declares to the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. In which case, the Vice President immediately assumes the powers and duties of the office as Acting President, until the President’s disability ceases to exist.
Unless the President is gravely ill, this constitutional provision need not come into play if he goes in for a minor procedure. He could simply designate an officer-in- charge for the duration, to oversee the operations of his office, if he likes. It has been done before. But there is no substitute for total candor and keeping the nation fully informed. His situation is not the same as that of Marcos when he developed his kidney trouble and had to undergo an operation.
In the case of Marcos, there was no functioning, ready-made order of succession. The office of Vice President had been abolished, and under the 1973 Constitution, as amended, in case of permanent disability, death, removal from office, or resignation of the President cum Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Batasang Pambansa shall act as President and Prime Minister until a successor has been elected for the unexpired portion of the term of the President and Prime Minister. The existence of powerful and ambitious groups and individuals, vying to replace Marcos, compelled him and the people around him to hide the details of his kidney transplant. They tried to present to the public old TV footage of the President at work, even though he was, in fact, undergoing the medical procedure. I had by then resigned as press secretary, spokesman and information minister and had gone back to journalism while keeping my elected seat at the Batasan; in that new role, I revealed the details of the operation, courtesy of competent medical sources.
DU30 does not have Marcos’s problems. He is not known to be gravely ill, and the Constitution clearly lays down the rules to be followed just in case, without involving him in any power struggle.
Whether Vice President Robredo is prepared or suited to succeed the President is a problem for former Senator Bongbong Marcos, who is contesting her election, and for those who believe the nation needs a much better option; but certainly not for DU30 anymore.
Baseline issue is not succession but health
Evasco’s plan to turn the country into a communist state has apparently failed, and DU30’s own plan to proclaim a revolutionary government has sailed into unforeseen troubles. The most DU30 has been able to work out is his undeclared revolutionary presidency, which did not count on the IS-linked Maute strike in Marawi. After four long weeks of fighting, and hundreds of dead, the nation expects to see the end of the siege, without the same problem reappearing in any other part of Muslim Mindanao.
But this cannot be predicted. The reported death of the IS supreme leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a Russian air strike in Raqqa, Syria—although yet unconfirmed—has raised instant speculation that the new IS leadership would now send more violent jihadists to its Eastern Province in southern Philippines rather than to Syria or Iraq. On my weekly TV program yesterday, Pakistani Ambassador Safdar Hayat suggested that Muslim scholars and holy men from various countries could now contribute their ideas on how to blunt anti-Islamic exremism, and that these countries and scholars and holy men are just waiting to be asked.
But as serious as this problem is, DU30’s first problem now is how to convince himself, the nation and the world that there is nothing to worry about his state of health.