Cracks have begun to show in the coalition government of Rodrigo Duterte, the last thing he needs at this time. With criticism of his high-handed presidency mounting and his popularity declining, he can ill afford to be distracted by house repair. But he doesn’t seem to have a choice; the damage has occurred in the most delicate of places.
An odd mix of characters has indeed produced volatile relationships inside the Cabinet.
Two are fighting over turf; one, the Cabinet secretary, is a former communist and the other, the secretary of agriculture, is an extreme ideological opposite – a farm owner in the south who has violently opposed political accommodation for Moro rebels.
A more open rift involves a finance secretary whose family has had strong links to the mining industry and a natural-resources secretary who is an environmental activist. In patent disregard of fraternal courtesy, the finance secretary testified against his Cabinet colleague at her own confirmation hearing in Congress. She was bypassed.
In the House of Representatives, Duterte lieutenants are also feuding.
Pantaleon Alvarez sits awkwardly in the Speaker's chair after being revealed, and forced to admit, he has a mistress and, from yet other past liaisons, also children. Amid the moralistic noise stirred up by the revelations, undertones of intrigue have surfaced promoting Gloria Arroyo, the former president, to replace the Speaker. Ms. Arroyo says she is not interested, but a loyalty issue with Mr. Alvarez depreciates the credibility of her disavowal. As majority leader, Ms. Arroyo had been deputy Speaker to Mr. Alvarez until he sacked her, along with more than 20 others holding leadership positions in the House, for voting against Mr. Duterte’s pet bill reinstituting the death penalty, abolished in 2006, during Ms. Arroyo's presidency.
The dissenters from the majority, however, are too few to make a difference even if they vote with the minority, who are even fewer.
But one oppositionist, Gary Alejano, a retired Marine captain once jailed for rising up against President Arroyo, felt inspired all the same to file an impeachment case against President Duterte, accusing him of corruption and of promoting death-squad-style murders in his war on drugs. Only a third of the House vote is needed to impeach him and send his case to the Senate for trial, but even that is a long shot. At any rate, the more urgent issue is death penalty.
The bill passed the House easily, 216 votes to 64, but it appears in for a rough sailing in the senate, raising the prospect of further division in the coalition. Elected nationally and given to independent-mindedness more than the district delegates to the Lower House, the senators are predicted to turn in a vote so close it may even defeat the bill.
Before the Senate went on summer recess in late March, Mr. Duterte had gathered 15 senators in the presidential palace for a courtship dinner. It is doubtful, however, whether the undecided among them became impressed enough to ensure the bill's final passage into law.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, the former police chief, who co-authored the bill, himself doubts it. But Sen. Francis Pangilinan, whose opposition Liberal Party accounts for even less than a third of the senate members, says, "It's too early to say." The Senate will take up the bill as soon as it reconvenes on May 2, but the vote, Pangilinan points out, will not come until after weeks of deliberations. He only hopes, he says, that by then the protests against Mr. Duterte's draconian ways in general and against the death penalty in particular will have snowballed enough to influence the senate to kill the bill.
Much, indeed, rides on that vote. It is the first one to be taken in Congress on not only a major issue but a moral one. The death-penalty bill, complemented by another that lowers the age of criminal liability from 15 to nine, is linked to the war on drugs, which, since it was launched upon Mr. Duterte’s accession to the presidency in July, has taken the lives of between 7,000 and 8,000 alleged drug dealers and users, many of them young. Western governments and international rights groups have criticized Mr. Duterte roundly for those deaths, many of which bore signs of summary executions – "extrajudicial killings", as they have come to be more known.
Philippine human rights lawyers, meanwhile, have organized themselves to seek out survivors of Mr. Duterte's war and offer to take up their case.
Given his autocratic predilections, Mr. Duterte must have been anxious to impose martial law, as he has repeatedly threatened to do, but apparently he is not prepared to risk being overturned by Congress or the Supreme Court.
Another unknown factor is the military. Mr. Duterte has been curiously deferential toward it. After he had ordered that Chinese encroachers be left alone in South China Sea waters declared by an international arbitral court as part of Philippine territory, his defense secretary sent out a patrol ship. Apparently to redeem himself and not seem so helpless in the face of such defiance, he made a bold and dramatic assertion of sovereignty; he ordered the military to occupy the remaining empty islands in the disputed waters and announced he would himself plant the Philippine flag on them, an unfulfilled promise resurrected from his electoral campaign.
The most striking indication of military ascendancy may perhaps be gathered from the President's reaction to his generals' opposition to the communist rebels' demand that all their comrades in prison be freed as a condition to peace talks. He said that, if he didn't go along with the generals, "the military might not like it . . . [and] oust me."
Mr. Duterte is not accustomed to being contradicted. Before his election to the presidency, he ruled his native southern city of Davao for two decades as a strongman mayor. Ghosts from those years have now appeared to haunt him. Two professed assassins testified in a congressional inquiry that they had taken part in hits ordered by Mayor Duterte and that the mayor himself had taken lives by his own hands. The later testimony, given by a retired police officer to corroborate the earlier one, has figured among the reasons cited in a Pulse Asia survey for the 7% dip in Mr. Duterte's approval rating to 76% in March, from 91% when he took office in July to 86% in October to 83% in December. The lawyer of the two whistleblowers is now preparing to file a case against Mr. Duterte with the International Criminal Court.
Not in the best of health by his own admission, Mr. Duterte, who turned 72 this month as he began his 10th month in office, would sometimes let on his doubts about finishing his term. "Will I survive the six years?" he asked on one occasion. "I'd make a prediction: maybe not."
The intimation takes on a graver significance today. – Rappler.com