The distinction must be made, because the numbing frequency with which President Rodrigo Duterte presents himself to the world as the Philippine Republic, in all its majesty and powers, compels comparison with the apocryphal quotation attributed to King Louis XIV of France, “L’etat c’est moi” (I am the state). (In fact, the closest Louis came to saying that bon mot was on his deathbed, where according to several eyewitnesses, he said: “Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours.” (“I depart, but the State shall always remain.”)
It was former party-list legislator and academic Walden Bello, who first made the linkage between DU30 and the French factoid. I gathered this from an article in the Washington Post, that in turn got the factoid from the Financial Times.
The Post story quoted Bello on Duterte: “He is a very knee-jerk kind of politician who is extremely sensitive to criticisms and personalizes them,” Walden Bello, a Philippine academic and analyst, told the Financial Times this week. “L’état, c’estD moi — that’s him.”
Since he acceded to office on June 30, DU30 has freely used the personal “I” when talking of the policies of his government.
In Beijing, in a roar heard round the world, he declared: “I announce my separation from the United States both in the military, but economics [terms]also.”
On his return to the country, he backtracked: “I am not severing diplomatic ties with the United States.”
And then on Tuesday, just before departing for his visit to Japan, he declared: “You know, I did not start this fight,” he said of his spat with Washington.
On its face, this way of talking had its debut when, shortly after his inauguration, he announced his war on drugs, and declared: “All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you.”
Constitution rooted on “We, the people”
Since 1899, every Filipino Constitution – from the 1899 Malolos Constitution to the 1987 Constitution – strived to embody the voice of “We, the Filipino people.”
The Malolos charter, written in Spanish, opened with the words, “We, the representatives of the Filipino people.”
The 1935 Constitution, in its preamble, opened with “The Filipino people, imploring the aid of divine providence…”
The 1973 Constitution declared “We the sovereign Filipino people…”
The 1987 Constitution, opened with “We, the sovereign Filipino people.”
Every charter that we have had used the collective “we” to refer to the nation or state.
The only constitutional passage where the president refers to himself in the first person “I” is in the oath of office, which reads “I (insert name) do solemnly swear ( or affirm)…”
Not until DU30 acceded to the presidency did our public life get flooded with so many personal statements and declarations posing or taken as policies of the Republic.
President Aguinaldo , for all the dictatorial powers vested in him during a time of war, did not refer to himself and his office in this fashion. President Marcos, at the height of his powers during martial law, stinted in using “I” in his speeches, as he sought to govern firmly under the rule of law.
Limits of presidential power
Regardless of how often people misread him, DU30 recognizes the limits of his power as president. When senior associate justice Antonio Carpio warned him that he could be impeached if he enters into an agreement with China for joint ventures and explorations in the West Philippine Sea, he readily agreed: “This has to be with the consent of Congress and everybody, every Filipino involved. At this time, I am not empowered to do that.”
It is equally clear that he does not have the power to write or abrogate treaties and agreements on his own.
He needs the concurrence of two- thirds of the Senate to ratify and change agreements with other nations and the international community.
Concepts of political science
Some basic concepts and definitions from political science are useful for understanding the issues engendered by the Duterte administration.
Government is the term that describes the formal institution and procedures through which a territory and its people are ruled. In its most complex form, a government is sometimes referred to as “the state.”
A system of government that gives citizens a regular opportunity to elect government officials is often called representative democracy or republic.
A system that permits citizens to vote directly on laws and policies is called direct democracy.
A democratic and republican state
Our 1987 charter framers describe the Philippines explicitly as a “democratic and republican state.” We are both a representative democracy and a republic.
There are many Filipinos who mistakenly believe that because President Duterte enjoys high approval and trust ratings with the public, his policy preferences and ideas, like the killing of drug suspects and separation from America, should automatically become law or public policy.
That’s not how our system works. We have a constitutional process for making laws and public policies, and for amending them once they are made law.
It’s never just about the president.
Under our political system, constitutional government is the norm, in that governmental power is both described in and limited by a governing constitution.
Authoritarian government recognizes no formal obligations to consult the citizens or to respect limits on its actions.
Totalitarian government is distinguished from both democratic and authoritarian government, by the lack of any distinction between the government and other important social institutions. Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and China under Mao, are the main examples of totalitarian governments.
President Duterte’s agenda of killing drug suspects down to the last drug lord, and reducing PH foreign relations to a pivot toward China and perhaps Russia, must weather the scrutiny and questioning of our constitutional system.
It’s a system of “We, the people” and not just of “I, Duterte.” Unpleasant though this may sound to him, Leila De Lima and all those yellow politicians also deserve to be heard.