The Deegong, the imperial President

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LITO MONICO C. LORENZANA

Last of a 3-part series
THE Philippine presidency consists of the President, his immediate staff and the collective units, principally the Cabinet, reporting directly to the President. Handed down by the US colonial administration, our presidential system hews closely to the American model, although there are dissimilarities. Traditionally, the Philippine presidency encompasses the whole Executive Department, following the cherished republican ideal of “checks and balances” among the three major branches of government.

President Duterte’s official acts, and those of his Cabinet and advisers are what constitute the collective decisions of the Office of the President (OP). The Cabinet is the primary bureaucracy from where the levers of presidential powers are exercised, and monitoring and feedback mechanisms are coursed. In organizational parlance, the Cabinet is a line function. Advisory bodies develop around the presidency complementing the Cabinet, and have staff functions along with the President’s personal coterie. There is a distinction between the two sets of bodies within the OP: the preeminent Cabinet secretaries whose appointments are confirmed by the congressional Commission on Appointments, and the appointed presidential personal staff and advisers that are not answerable to Congress and therefore owe personal loyalty to the President.

Like an impresario, the President conducts the country’s affairs through these disparate groups of people who by the very nature of their jobs are required to possess political skills aside from the particular expertise for which the President have chosen them. The integral element in running effectively the executive offices is their proximity to the President. By definition too, this proximity is equated with power; and power is the main currency in the political dynamics.

This is the contemporary structure of the presidency in a republican framework. Its precedents go back to the “royal court” of a monarchy where the occupants were solely answerable to the sovereign. The monarchical structure no longer exists but the vestiges of the archaic interactions and presidential largesse are still ritually dispensed upon the select; but also, the immediate and deadly retribution upon the disfavored. The current President almost solely determines the fate of his subordinates, giving the premium for their survival in the bureaucracy the trait of telling him only what he wants to hear.


Alpha male President
The President’s strongman demeanor is a real one and has been honed through the cauldron of his political experience in a city once controlled by criminal and ideologically unacceptable elements. These problems were often solved, by his own admission, by disregarding some “niceties of the rule of law”. His no-nonsense approach to political governance was effective locally and he is now applying the formula on a larger scale, for the whole country. PRRD is a self-directed public manager always setting his own goals, pushing the boundaries of discretion. And here is where it becomes complicated.

How do his subalterns relate with an alpha male of a President? In this particular case, President Duterte’s presence is the dominating specter hovering over the OP; and with his propensity to act decisively on a mere “whiff of corruption,” this, I submit, strikes fear in the hearts of even the virtuous. Add to that his propensity to act and decide without proper consultation with his Cabinet. Indeed, a dominant and domineering personality will intimidate the people around him. As a counter-measure, the participation of alpha males/females in the Cabinet is an imperative. Strong Presidents should have strong-minded advisers. The absence of an ardent “imperial court of advisers” to the presidency is a disservice to an office where policy discourse on good governance is primarily fueled by healthy debate and a clash of ideas.

Echoing Schlesinger’s hypothesis on the making of an imperial presidency, all of the above contribute to the weakness of a presidency in a republican state that allows the appearance of an imperial President with “strongman” attributes. President Rodrigo Duterte fits this description.

Weak checking mechanism
Two other elements contribute to the making of an imperial presidency; a weak, or the absence of a, checking mechanism of Congress and the Constitution itself. Part 1 of this series (“Self-castration of Congress”) described how both houses of the legislative branch surrendered their prerogatives in checking the executive branch.

As to the Constitution, the President has not yet been proven to have breached any of its dictates but his constant threats against its ultimate arbiter and interpreter, the Supreme Court, comes close to a transgression.

Pimentel reacts to Duterte defying SC, Congress:“Alarmed, but no need to act”(May 29, 2017 @inquirerdotnet)

“Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel 3rd on Monday defended President Rodrigo Duterte from critics, saying he did not violate the law by making remarks about defying the Supreme Court (SC) and Congress on martial law.”

Duterte defies Supreme Court (@inquirerdotnet, August 10, 2016)

“I’m giving you a warning. Don’t create a crisis because I will order everybody in the executive department not to honor you,” Mr. Duterte told (Supreme Court Chief Justice) Sereno, in his remarks before the military in Cagayan de Oro City.

“You want me to be frank? You’re interfering (with my job)… Please, don’t order me. I’m not a fool. If this continues, (that) you’re trying to stop me, I might lose my cool. Or would you rather I declare martial law?”

The proposition that now shapes the national conversation is whether President Duterte, with all his flaws, is what this country needs. In Part 1 & 2 of this series, a case was being developed that the frustrations of the Filipino—stark poverty and corruption in all levels of government; the downward spiral toward stasis from the early days of the Republic— precipitated the seething anger that found relief from an outsider whose message and personality resonated with the voters. Duterte the foul-mouth visionary whose claim to fame is the deliverance of a city from the political abyss of centralized government neglect, carpeted his governance with the corpses of the “dregs of society”. He openly declared as his platform that he will do the same for the whole country if elected President. We elected him President.

His current 75 percent support from the populace reinforced its clarion call for such a man and certainly put to rest the question that the Filipino needs this imperial President Rodrigo Duterte.

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