Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers his state of the nation address at Congress in Manila on July 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers his state of the nation address at Congress in Manila on July 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s third State of the Nation Address (SONA) was uncharacteristically pithy, on-script and sober-minded. It defied expectations of a “fire and fury” speech, as many anticipated was in offing when the presidential palace promised the president’s agenda-setting speech would come “from the heart.”

Clocking at less than 40 minutes,and devoid of his thunderous cusses, it was arguably Duterte’s his most disciplined public speech to date after a series of previous stream-of-conscious ramblings that often aimed to shock and awe various audiences, not least Western governments and human right groups.

Dutetre’s previous two SONAs, in contrast, were progressively extemporaneous and filled with invectives against his many critics. This year’s speech, which many found reassuring though less than colorful, underscored the Philippine president’s determination to stick to his current path.

He seemed unfazed by his declining popularity and growing opposition to his key policies. But Duterte looked visibly exasperated by the increasingly vicious politics within his own camp.

Some observers even detected certain signs of a growing weariness from the aging president, who has often flirted with the idea of early resignation from office amid rising domestic and international criticism and pressure. Indeed, he often seemed a shell of his past self, hemmed in by the profound challenges of governing one of the most boisterous and polarized societies in the world.

Case in point: Duterte’s SONA was delayed by almost an hour after supporters of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo launched an unprecedented legislative coup against incumbent Speaker of the House Pantaleon Alvarez, a staunch Duterte supporter from his same southern island of Mindanao.

Former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gestures as she attempts to grab the House of Representatives leadership at Congress, Manila, July 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Arroyo, who has rapidly emerged as one of Duterte’s top confidantes, sought to assume the stage during the SONA speech. But in an effort to forestall the coup and deny her legitimacy, Alvarez’s supporters cut off her microphone and removed the Mace of the House from the podium after her attempted assumption of congressional leadership.

As such, the helpless new speaker (and former president) was forced to shout from the podium, while wondering about her rivals’ next move. What followed was a virtual standoff in the Philippine Congress, with Duterte stranded inside the waiting room waiting for the dust to settle before taking the podium.

At one point there were concerns of a possible cancellation of the whole event, with special guests and dignitaries from around the world waiting in suspense amid the festering rout among the president’s unruly allies.

In many ways, the standoff reflected the slow-motion breakdown of the rules of engagement and basic decorum in Duterte’s Philippines, where the rule of law has given way to a deepening climate of impunity and often gut-wrenching Machiavellian politics.

Duterte, however, managed to broker a temporary truce between the rival factions, with Alvarez keeping his seat beside the Senate President, Tito Sotto, and behind the president, on the podium for the duration of the SONA. Arroyo, however, was formally installed as the new speaker shortly after Duterte’s speech.

Duterte’s began his speech on a somber note, wasting no time in defending his signature scorched-earth war on drugs policy, which has claimed the lives of thousands of suspected drug dealers since he took office in mid-2016.

Police officers investigate a dead body of an alleged drug dealer, his face covered with packing tape in Manila in a 2017 file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

“Let me begin by putting it bluntly: the war against illegal drugs is far from over,” the president warned, underscoring his unwavering commitment to stay his controversial course. “Instead, it will be as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day it began,” he said.

“If you think that I can be dissuaded from continuing this fight because of [your] demonstrations, your protests, which I find, by the way, misdirected, then you got it all wrong,” Duterte said to applause, defiantly pushing back against growing opposition to the brutal campaign. “Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives.”

He then proceeded to underline his supposed commitment to robust and effective governance, condemning the scourge of corruption in the country and stating that “justice will catch up with those who steal government funds.”

He advocated for the “swift passage” of the Ease of Doing Business Act to spur investment and necessary bureaucratic reforms to ensure “efficient, effective, and responsive government services.”

Next was a spirited defense of his push for political decentralization and federalism through a new constitution, a proposed move which has faced domestic resistance among his allies and society writ large according to opinion polls.

Anti-government protesters burn an effigy of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, connected to a mock train, a reference to his tax reform law, during a protest in Manila, July 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

He called for a more equitable system of governance that benefitted peripheral regions, including his conflict-ridden southern island of Mindanao, to end the system he referred to as “imperial Manila” that only leaves a “pittance” to poorer provinces.

Duterte defended the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which provides a political framework for the establishment of a Muslim-majority sub-state entity in southern Mindanao.

Duterte also emphasized his environmental credentials, defending his abrupt shutdown of the tourist Island of Boracay for “[e]nvironmental protection and ensuring the health of our people.” He vowed to apply drastic measures to other ecologically endangered tourist destinations in the country as well.

Amid growing concerns over rising inflation and a declining local currency, Duterte defended his controversial tax reform agenda, the so-called TRAIN Law, which he says has provided funds to “build better roads and bridges, and improve health and education, and strengthen our safety and security.”

He warned alleged “economic saboteurs” against driving up the prices of basic goods, including the staple foods ordinary Filipinos rely on to survive.

President Rodrigo Duterte (R) is shown the way by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (L) before a signing ceremony in Beijing, October 2016. Photo: AFP.

He also took the opportunity to defend his much-maligned foreign policy, which he claims is an “independent” strategy of diversifying the Philippines’ historically Western-friendly external relations.

He celebrated the country’s “re-energized relations with China”, which has led to an “unprecedented level of cooperation between our nations”, including in terms of “war against transnational crimes.”

Duterte presented China as a reliable ally and partner for development despite deepening domestic criticism that his soft-pedaling on maritime disputes vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea has undermined national sovereignty and security.

Though his most somber and sober speech to this date, Duterte remained defiant and adamant to govern the country as he sees fit. Yet factional infighting, growing public skepticism and festering resistance to his policies were also clearly beginning to catch up with the maverick populist.