A reporter’s look at Duterte’s State of the Nation Address
President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his second state of the nation speech to a joint session of Congress on Monday, vowing to continue his bloody war on illegal drugs despite international and domestic criticism. The tough-talking president also insisted he would not hold peace talks with communist rebels because of continuing attacks.
The chief Manila correspondent of the Associated Press, Jim Gomez, who has covered regional politics for more than two decades, discusses the speech and the reaction:
This year and last year
In comparing Duterte’s state of the nation speech on Monday with his first one last year, the Duterte that I heard this week was essentially the same guy that I heard a year ago. His obsession with eradicating drugs, crime and corruption and the kind of rhetoric that he employs to express his hatred for these problems are essentially the same.
What was different was that he has more problems on his lap now than last year, and the biggest, of course, is the crisis in the southern city of Marawi, where Islamic State group-linked militants have laid siege to the city since May.
His handling of the communist insurgency has also evolved. In last year’s address, he talked about initiating peace talks with the rebels. Now, a full year later, the rhetoric was that he would no longer talk with the guerrillas because he’s angry over recent attacks against government forces, including fighting that left five of his presidential guards wounded last week. He has grown more grounded on the realities of the insurgency.
Duterte appeared more comfortable when he went off-script on Monday as compared to last year, and in expressing his world view. He was talking about protecting the environment, expressing his anger with mining companies. Overall, he sounded more relaxed on Monday than during last year’s state of the nation speech.
The rhetoric tool kit
Duterte has become known for his tough talk, and some of that talk has been translated into action, especially regarding his anti-drug crackdown. His tough talk has sent a message to criminals. The scale of the anti-drug crackdown has been unprecedented. It’s the largest number of anti-drug raids that I have seen at any time since I became a journalist. The police have acknowledged that they have killed more than 3,000 drug suspects in their operations.
Duterte’s tough talk has translated into change in that he belts out orders to the police to really crack down hard on illegal drugs, and they follow. He has promised the police that he will pardon them for any offenses they may commit while carrying out his orders, and this has emboldened them.
Duterte was known for his tough talk when he was mayor of the southern city of Davao, so both critics and supporters know that when he talks tough, it’s not empty talk. But he’s president now, and he’s discovering that there are a lot more checks and balances he has to wrestle with now than when he was a mayor.
Response from his constituents
The state of the nation speech was well-received in Congress, where Duterte enjoys strong support. While he was delivering the speech, his followers in Congress were applauding, and afterward they told reporters that he was consistent with his messages on drugs and the communist and Muslim insurgencies.
But his critics, as expected, expressed alarm over the rantings and the death threats in the speech, even though there has been a year of that. One of Duterte’s most vocal critics, Sen. Leila de Lima, who is in prison on drug charges that she denies, said in a statement that the address turned out to be another venue for Duterte to unload his rants on certain sectors, especially his critics.
Tailoring to audiences
While many politicians may tailor their speeches to the audience they are speaking to, this is not the case with Duterte. He really doesn’t care what type of audience he’s facing. As soon as he gets off the script – which he always does – the rants and curses start to flow out. Almost all of his speeches feature tough talk on his crusade against illegal drugs, whether it’s an audience of business executives or government troops.
In his state of the nation speech, some wanted to hear more details on his policies and policy direction. When he went off-script, the crowd expected to hear the flow of expletives and threats and other informal talk. Everybody expected an out-of-the-box state of the nation speech, and that is what they got.