Akbayan organized the stunt. President Duterte fell for it with disastrous results. The leftist group brought in a seven-member delegation of something called the “Progressive Alliance.” They were trotted about as parliamentarians from the European Union (EU). The group issued a strong statement condemning the Duterte administration’s bloody war on drugs.
Duterte reacted with rage, interpreting this as a brazen intrusion into our internal affairs. He then launched into an expletive-laden rant against the EU, ordering his Finance Secretary not to accept assistance from the regional grouping and daring the ambassadors to immediately leave the country.
The rant, incoherent as it was angry, sent shockwaves internationally. It likewise sent our responsible government officials into a frantic effort to contain the damage inflicted by the President’s words. But the damage might not be completely undone.
Duterte was seriously misinformed, it turns out. The EU clarified that the Akbayan-hosted delegation was not an official undertaking of the regional grouping. That delegation did not represent the views of the EU. This was a group of impostors Akbayan used to amplify its own political positions.
I am not sure how we could walk back this diplomatic fiasco. This is not the first time Duterte embarrassed himself, and the country, by going on a rant with incomplete facts. Sadly, this might not be the last.
Once it was common to liken Duterte to Donald Trump. The more precise analogy might be to Hugo Chavez and his clone Nicolas Maduro. Both men regularly performed like buffoons on the international stage.
This recent incident highlights the need to make corrections in the way the Duterte presidency is run.
On the part of the President, he probably needs some exercises to improve anger management. He needs to avoid making off-the-cuff remarks and rely more on prepared staff inputs.
We now know the Office of the President is largely a one-man show. A coterie of assistants timidly follows Duterte as he weaves through his day, improvising as he goes along. Because the President disdains prepared texts and relishes stream-of-consciousness monologues, his staff prepares nothing for him. This is, as we have seen, a dangerous routine.
Discussing this latest fiasco with a group of businessmen and public intellectuals the other night, we arrived at the conclusion that Duterte urgently needs a chief of staff. This is similar to the role played by General Kelly in Trump’s White House.
The chief of staff will oversee preparations for the President’s engagements, make sure he is on message and help craft the policy agenda for the leader’s articulation. The chief of staff should have enough gravitas to tell the President he is wrong when he is.
Those of us who served former president Fidel Ramos dreaded three letters most: “CSW” scribbled angrily in red across the text of some badly prepared memo handed him. The three letters were initials for “completed staff work.” This meant that, at every instance, the President’s staff must have all the facts and all the options ready on every issue that crops up during the day.
Duterte must adopt this discipline and build the staff support to make it possible. He is, after all, President of the Republic. Every word he utters is policy. Every threat he makes, such as sending EU ambassadors packing “in 24 hours,” is taken with utmost seriousness.
One misspoken word and he could send the stock market crashing. A poorly formulated utterance could precipitate a diplomatic incident. Weak grasp of the facts could make him appear like a buffoon.
The powerful Commission on Appointments rejected five of the original appointees to the Duterte Cabinet. One, the DICT secretary, has resigned for reasons still unclear. All these suggest President Duterte might have put in more sagacity in the personnel choices he makes.
Word on the street has it that DOTr Secretary Art Tugade might be next on the chopping block – notwithstanding Tugade’s long friendship with Duterte dating back to their San Beda days.
Tugade, according to reports, got the president’s goat when he asked the President for P76 billion in additional funding even as his agency held on to P86 billion in unspent budget allocations. Before that, delegations of businessmen arranged to meet with the President to complain about the transport secretary.
To be sure, there are a million problems on Tugade’s plate. The agency has so far failed to bring tangible relief for the frontline woes affecting millions: timely issuance of vehicle license plates and registration stickers, prompt release of drivers’ licenses and palpable alleviation of street congestion. Most prominently, the agency has yet to arrive at a meaningful resolution of problems plaguing our commuter trains. We have to mention too the delayed action on bigticket projects such as airports and ports.
The DOTr seems to have become a purgatory of inaction even as the agency is expected to spearhead the modernization of the country’s infrastructure. Many are now convinced the problem lies with the agency head no less.
In addition to poor performance on the job, a number of anomalies committed during Tugade’s tenure as chairman of the Clark Development Corporation have been unearthed. Among these are: the approval of the P7-billion Capillon Development Project done without public bidding and the arbitrary cancellation of the $8-million Hollywood Park Development Corporation project allegedly because one of Tugade’s close associates was interested in the parcel of land to be used for this.
A list of things derogatory to Tugade has been submitted to the President for his consideration. He may choose to act on it.