President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s vow to “metamorphose from a caterpillar into a butterfly,” when he assumes the presidency on June 30, has relieved some critics of their anxieties and reassured his voters that he has not become a latter-day version of England’s King George III or Ecuador’s President Abdala Jaime Bucaran Ortiz, popularly known as “El Loco,” who was ousted for mental incapacity after only a year in office.
For Duterte, the perceptible enthusiasm about his promised “metamorphosis” is a propaganda coup. The alluring image of a “butterfly” is fortuitously enhanced upon the passing of the great Muhammad Ali, the legendary world boxing champion who danced in the ring, promising to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
“I want to enjoy the last days of my rudeness,” said Mr. Duterte, as he promised to behave like a perfect gentleman (“a real president”) once in office. No cuss words, no obscenities, no expletives. Sounds like a hard labor sentence for an innocent convict.
Duterte’s decision to cut down his press conferences is apparently part of this project. It would reduce his opportunity to shoot himself in the foot, or put his foot inside the mouth. We derive our wisdom on this matter from President Ramon Magsaysay’s younger brother, the most genial, non-controversial, non-intellectual Genaro Magsaysay, who famously advised himself as a sitting senator—-“no talk, no mistake.” Thus many people eagerly await Mr. Duterte’s “metamorphosis.”
What the word means
It is a fascinating word. We first learn about it at grade school when at play or on field trips we go out catching butterflies. An article in Scientific American (online) describes the process: it begins with a hungry caterpillar hatching from an egg. Then “it stuffs itself with leaves, growing plumper and longer through a series of molts in which it sheds its skin. One day, the caterpillar stops eating, hangs upside down from a twig or leaf and spins itself a silky cocoon or molts into a shiny chrysalis. With its protective casing, the caterpillar radically transforms its body, eventually as a butterfly or moth.”
From this, it appears that a larva (this is the scientific name) has an even chance of becoming a moth rather than a butterfly. How can Mr. Duterte avoid it? This appears to be a problem, but sage counsel may be accessed from history, music or literature.
In ancient literature, the monumental narrative poem “Metamorphoses” (8 AD) by the Roman poet Ovid celebrates the history of the world, from Creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. Something at par with this, or even better, is probably what one should aim for. Why ever not? One must dream until one’s dreams fall short.
In “Six Metamorphoses After Ovid” (1956), a program music for oboe solo by the English composer Lord Benjamin Britten, the composition honors six metamorphoses in ancient mythology, one of which Mr Duterte may not be able to avoid being associated with. This is Narcissus, the fifth of the six “metamorphoses,” who fell in love with his own image and became a flower. I’m sure Mr. Duterte will not mind being wolf-whistled at if he were morphed into a rose, a tulip or a sunflower.
To be completely avoided, however, is what happens in “Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka’s 1915 novel. In this novel, described as one of the seminal works of fiction of the 20th century, a travelling salesman named Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find himself turned into a giant bug (“a monstrous vermin”). He is late for work, so his mother, father, sister pound on his door. But he is unable to lift himself from bed to open his door, nor can he be heard by those trying to talk to him or wanting to come in; even his voice has morphed, and is now inaudible. His office manager comes in to check on him, but is the first one to panic out of the house upon seeing what has happened to him. Reduced into an insect, he eventually behaves as an insect and everyone treats him as one. He dies as an insect in the end.
Butterfly or moth
This is not to suggest that despite Mr. Duterte’s promise to turn himself into a beautiful butterfly, he could still turn into a moth, or into a monstrous vermin. Especially if he is not in control of all the variables. Through the sensational mass media, which have faithfully recorded every expletive and cuss word that has come out of his mouth, he has succeeded enormously in focusing public attention solely on his coarse behavior and language, and limited the controversy to his “unpresidential manners.”
But—and this is the big but—this unyielding focus on his coarse behavior and language has succeeded in taking the attention of the public, the media, the major political players and the nation’s moral and spiritual leaders away from the more fundamental and substantial issues about his presidency, such as but not limited to his call to make killing a generalized solution to crime, his call to fast-track federalism, the way he is forming his government, and even his state of health. These are large and important issues, which deserve to be thoroughly examined and discussed before and after he assumes office.
State of health
Duterte himself has been heard to say he is suffering from a persistent ailment, which he has not named. Under the Constitution, any presidential ailment should be disclosed to the public, especially if life-threatening or serious. This includes mental illness. This deserves to be underlined because copies of a court document have begun circulating in the grapevine, which purports to show that the incoming President might be suffering from a psychological disorder that could affect his conduct in office. Duterte should initiate efforts to have this document publicly verified and dissected.
All presidential health issues should have been discussed during the debates. But only Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago spoke openly about her state of health. She revealed her ongoing fight against cancer, and after the election, she had herself admitted at the intensive care unit of the Makati Medical Center for a possible complication. The latest medical bulletin has reported her improved condition.
As for Duterte, he is said to be suffering from a persistent migraine. But there are rumors of other medical problems. These rumors must be quelled, if they cannot be confirmed.
Duterte has lately been quoted as saying he is ready to put up a P1-billion bounty for the capture or death of drug lords and other criminals. This could strike fear in the hearts of many criminals, but it cannot be the preferred way of going after them. The duty of the police is to enforce the law and solve crime by arresting criminals so that they could be tried in court and punished after their guilt is proved; it would be wrong to turn them into bounty hunters or to confuse them with the military whose mission is “to search and destroy.”
The new government’s duty is to make the country crime-free by enforcing every law, punishing and reforming every offender, wherever possible, but not by turning the State into one huge killing machine, and our law enforcers into bloody executioners. The public may initially show approval of summary executions of suspected criminals, but only in the beginning; it is bound to show a general revulsion after a few killings. There can be no substitute to an efficient and effective justice criminal system where every crime is solved, and every offender punished according to one’s crime.
Forming the Cabinet
The most important pre-inaugural issue for Mr. Duterte is his announced coalition government with the Left. Four strategic Cabinet positions have been awarded to nominees of the CPP/NPA/NDF. But aside from the nominees for secretary of Social Welfare and Development, Labor and Employment, Agrarian Reform, and Environment and Natural Resources, several other Cabinet nominees and undersecretaries are believed to be seasoned, card-carrying communists.
Where the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989-1991 was the most important development in world politics in favor of the anti-communist camp, this is the most important political development in the nation’s history, in favor of the communists. Its immediate effect is the exact opposite of the Soviet collapse, and yet it remains unexamined and undiscussed by the political parties, academics, and even by those who had wanted to become the president.
At the Ateneo de Davao University today, the first public forum will attempt to discuss the peace process between the government and the CPP/NPA/NDF. Hopefully something about the coalition with the Left will be discussed. But the most persistent question among some truly concerned citizens is, whether something as fundamental as a coalition government with the Left, should not be the result of a comprehensive peace agreement which formally and conclusively ends the prolonged communist insurgency, rather than an executive decision that precedes any such agreement.
We all support the need to accelerate peace talks with the CPP/NPA/NDF. But is it necessary or lawful to put the coalition cart before the horse? How should the military, the police, the bureaucracy and society’s natural institutions behave, having been conditioned all their lives to regard the communists, especially their armed partisans, as enemies of the state? Does this not provoke suspicions that the CPP/NPA/NDF been tasked to prepare the ground for Duterte’s promise of a “revolutionary government,” should his constitutional presidency fail to deliver on its promises? Does this not sow the seeds of destruction of the Philippine state?
The nation deserves to hear the incoming President on this.
Call to federalism
“Federalism” was a favorite theme during the campaign, and one of the biggest “winners” in Duterte’s election. Many seemed to believe that as soon as Duterte won, the federalization process would automatically follow. The announcement that Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez would be the next Speaker of the House of Representatives and that he would try to fast-track federalism has heightened public expectation. But this involves a revision of the Constitution, and this is only possible with the involvement of the entire Filipino people.
I am one of the first advocates of a shift to a federal government. But I am not in favor of fast-tracking anything as important as that. We have to prepare ourselves for it, acquire some knowledge and experience in running the system before we implement the shift. We need to have a transition period to put in place the necessary structures and institutions, and avoid doing anything half-baked.
Danger of Balkanization
More importantly, we need to allay all fears that a shift to federalism will result in the balkanization of the Republic. This is the fear of many, and this is now heightened by the perception that at least 80 percent of the incoming Cabinet are either leftist or left-leaning, and that the incoming Speaker of the House used to be a high official of the “Mindanao Independence Movement” whose ultimate agenda could be the breakaway of Mindanao.
Duterte has made Davao the de facto capital of the Philippines, and almost all of his Cabinet members are from Mindanao. At the same time, some foreign powers have shown unabashed support for the possible breakaway of Mindanao, for their own geopolitical and economic ends. Should we decide to federalize, breaking away from the federal republic could be just one more step for a federal state, which is already the virtual seat of power of the entire government, and contains the bulk of the nation’s minerals and land- and marine-based resources.
This compels many original advocates of federalism to rethink their position, and to call upon the next President to proceed with caution and be much more deliberate. Can Duterte make this part of his metamorphosis?