On Sunday December 5, President Duterte, via an SMS message from his Secretary to the Cabinet ‘Jun’ Evasco, ordered Vice-President Robredo “to desist from attending all Cabinet meetings” (click here). Tellingly, Secretary Evasco did not say that President Duterte had asked him to send this message, but that ‘Mayor Duterte’ had instructed him to do so. Not ironically in the Philippines, President Duterte’s daughter is the current mayor of Davao City.
President Duterte was mayor or vice-mayor of Davao City for 27 of the 30 years prior to his presidency. Apart for a single three-year stint as a Congressman (due to mayoral term limits) from 1998-2001, these mayoral positions have been his only prior political experience. During the election campaign, candidate Duterte frequently said that he wanted to be the ‘Mayor of the Philippines’ and that is how he would like people to refer to him if he won the presidential election. Evasco’s text suggests this is what is happening.
One of the biggest challenges President Duterte faces is adjusting his approach to political power and governance from that of a dominant local politician in southern Mindanao to one more suited for the very different job of president of the Philippines. Mayors, particularly if they are the scion of a local political dynasty, face few if any local checks on their political power. The presidency is only one of a number of co-equal branches of government and the president frequently must cooperate with an independently elected vice-president from a different political party and persuasion. President Duterte’s unprecedented personal criticisms of activist senators and the Chief Justice and his barring of the vice-president from Cabinet meetings so early in his term suggest that he is still acting like ‘Mayor Duterte’.
So far, it appears not only that President Duterte is not advancing up this steep and necessary learning curve from mayor to president but that he may not even accept that such a learning curve exists.
Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.