Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivering his annual State of the Nation Address in Congress in Manila on July 27, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Philippines' Presidential Photographers Division / Robinson Ninal

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made an emphatic defense of his most controversial policies, heaped praise on China and implicitly announced his preferred successor on Monday in his fifth State of the Nation Address.

Long accustomed to high approval ratings, a visibly exhausted Duterte seemed far from reassured amid growing discontent over his widely perceived as poor management of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Philippines currently has the highest number of active cases in Southeast Asia, and its post-lockdown economic recovery has been among the region’s most sluggish. 

Although his Malacañang presidential palace promised an uplifting and unifying national address, the Filipino strongman started and ended his speech by again attacking the country’s so-called “oligarchs” and their political backers, a leitmotif of his tenure.

Eager to defend the controversial shutdown of the country’s largest media network, ABS-CBN, he branded its Lopez family owners as exploitative “oligarchs” who have reputedly held back the nation by gaming the system.

He also attacked the Ayala business family for supposedly manipulating water concessionaires through the help of the political opposition.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivering his annual State of the Nation Address in congress in Manila, July 27, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Handout /Philippines’ Presidential Photographers Division.

He also zeroed in on Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drillon, who he accused of facilitating questionable public utility concessions to the “oligarchs” through his previous work at the influential ACCRA law firm, which has brokered major projects throughout the decades.

Critics say it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black, however. Duterte, a long-time mayor whose three children simultaneously occupy various government positions, has been particularly incensed by Drillon’s call for a new anti-dynasty law.

The opposition senator earlier questioned Duterte’s attack on prominent businessmen and pointed instead at the political dynasties he sees as the “real oligarchy” that controls most of the country’s political offices.

During his two-hour address, the Filipino president also adamantly defended his decision to impose one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns, which has devasted the economy.

“We will not gamble with the lives of people… not me, not us… put your faith in the government and work with us for achieving what is best for the country,” Duterte said.

He claimed without corroborating evidence that between 1.5 to 3.5 million infections were prevented because of his government’s decisive social distancing measures

“Life before everything,” Duterte exclaimed, citing the United States as a cautionary tale of the dangers of hasty economic reopening and overlax social distancing measures.

“Haste makes waste,” warned the president while maintaining “[There is] no option of returning to pre-Covid-19 economic activity levels” unless vaccines are available.

A health worker wearing a personal protective equipment (PPE) suit raises her closed fist during a protest against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Quezon City, Philippines on July 27, 2020. Photo: Lisa Marie David/NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Meanwhile, Duterte heaped praise on China for its supposedly effective management of the epidemic outbreak, while failing to mention the pandemic originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Portraying China as a savior, Duterte referred to his recent personal conversations with President Xi Jinping, who supposedly promised to make the Philippines among the first recipients of any Chinese-made vaccines.

Duterte claimed China may offer vaccines “on credit” if not as a donation and grants package.

He also defended his China-friendly foreign policy, reiterating his commitment to “pursue [an] independent foreign policy” which is based on the principle of “build[ing] productive ties with everyone willing to engage us on the basis of equality and full respect.”

The emphasis on “full respect” was an indirect jab at the United States and West, which have openly criticized his abysmal human rights record, including in regard to his lethal drug war.

Duterte was also quick to warn against allowing a greater US military presence on Philippine soil, specifically the establishment of new military “bases in Subic”, the former site of America’s largest overseas naval facilities.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shows the way to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a file photo. Photo: AFP

“If you put [US] bases here you double the spectacle of most destructive (conflict) just like [what happened to] Manila in World War II,” warned Duterte while presenting stronger security cooperation with the US as a recipe for disaster.

If “war breaks out”, Duterte claimed with apocalyptic rhetoric, nuclear weapons will be involved and that could mean “the extinction for the Filipino race.”

At the same time, Duterte called for dialogue and compromise with China over South China Sea disputes, lest the Philippines risks a suicidal conflict.

“Unless you are prepared to go war, I suggest just go along [with a deal]…China has the arms, we do not have it,” he said, pushing back against critics who have called for a more forceful response to China’s rising adventurism in Philippine waters.

Throughout his speech, Duterte repeatedly praised the military and police forces while reminding them of their increased salaries and benefits under his tenure.

Just as significant was Duterte’s de facto endorsement of his preferred successor with a new election on the horizon in 2022.

Next in line?: Bong Go before testifying at a Senate Blue Ribbon on a frigate procurement controversy, February 8, 2018. Photo: Twitter

Duterte repeatedly praised his long-time personal assistant and current Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, including for his role in organizing the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis.

In his speech, he promised to implement Go’s balik probinsya (return to provinces) proposal for millions of displaced workers now stranded in urban centers.

Though he never openly endorsed his longtime aide, likely to reserve the option to endorse his daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte depending on polls, at one point the populist president even said: “It’s alright for me to go [so long as] Bong Go [will] just stay.”