In his State of the Nation Address (SONA) before Congress, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was expected to report on the status of the country as well as his government’s plans to combat the pandemic among others. Instead, he used the much-anticipated annual event – his fifth during his term – to make a slew of threats that highlighted his troubling authoritarian tendencies.
Among them was potential government closures and taking over the Philippines’ privately-owned telecommunication companies and other utilities and services, if they don’t shape up. Other statements from his speech included support for the death penalty, killing criminals, and praising Martial Law.
They mark further additions to a growing list of dictatorial moves the President has made in his last four years in office.
Duterte spent a considerable amount of time repeatedly threatening to “expropriate” or take ownership of private companies.
“All that is good that belongs to government – airwaves, lines, or whatever that is good for the people – will belong to the government and it should be government who should be given the first option to utilize them,” he said, adding that only the “leftovers” could be taken by private companies.
Duterte added that the patience of the Filipino people is “reaching its limit,” and that he will be “the one to articulate their anger… and you may not want what I intend to do with you.”
He particularly railed against telecommunications companies, and said if they failed to improve their “lousy” and “less-than-billed” services, he would order their shutdown.
“If you are not ready to improve, I might just as well close all of you and revert back to line telephone,” he said. He also gave them a four-month deadline.
Duterte, whose six-year term finishes in 2022, said he had two more years left in office and he would use that time to improve “the telecommunications of this country without you,” adding that he “will find a way, and talk to Congress.”
Duterte has made similar threats in the past, which have resulted in drastic and rushed actions from lawmakers – and getting his way. The Congress is largely composed of the President’s allies.
In a previous SONA, he threatened the closure of the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, sharing his personal grievances against the network. He also warned he would block the network giant’s renewal, accusing it of bias. Just a few weeks ago, it went off-air after an unsuccessful battle in Congress to renew its franchise, rendering 11,000 Filipinos jobless.
Aside from threats to close companies owned by what he repeatedly called evil “oligarchs,” he also raised a familiar topic of making criminals pay for wreaking havoc.
“If you go back to your old ways, bodies will begin to pile up again here. For sure I will find you.” he said in Filipino, addressing criminals. “Do not ever go back to your old ways.” The statement alluded to his brutal drug war that has seen tens of thousands of deaths in the hands of police and extrajudicial killings of suspected drug criminals.
Duterte also pushed to revive the death penalty by lethal injection for drug-related crimes, saying that the law would deter criminality. “Do not do it in my country because I will really kill you. That is a commitment,” he warned drug users and traffickers.
When Congress responded with silence to his proposal to reinstate the capital punishment, he remarked that they didn’t seem interested – which triggered a response of applause among the lawmakers to signal their support.
In his speech, Duterte also praised the ending of martial law in Mindanao, which he imposed from May 2017 to December 2019.
"The martial law in Mindanao ended without any abuse by the civilian sector, by the police, by the military. It ended because I know they know how to love the country," he announced.
Danilo Arao, University of the Philippines college of mass communication professor, said that the main subtext of Duterte’s SONA was his strongman leadership.
Speaking of the threat to expropriate major telecommunication companies, Arao told VICE News that the ultimatum “should be interpreted in the context of the tyranny that is happening right now,” citing the recent anti-terrorism law and closure of ABS-CBN.
“While it is right to criticize Smart and Globe [telecommunication companies] for their inefficiency, the government cannot just take over privately-owned companies just for ‘bad services,’” he said.
“Then again Duterte has shown in the past that what prevails is not much the rule of law but the law of the ruler.”
Arao also called out Duterte’s “selective and vindictive attacks against the oligarchy,” saying that the companies are likely to be transferred to another set of oligarchs on “good terms” with the current administration than nationalized.
Netizens and other groups also pointed out the various ironies and contradictions in the President’s speech, and his incongruous thoughts and policies.
On his claim regarding Martial Law, human rights groups were quick to challenge the President’s celebratory claim. At least one group, Karapatan, claimed over 800,000 human rights abuses in Mindanao since the start of martial law, including kidnappings, killings, and forcible evacuations.
Earlier in his speech, Duterte also praised the same wealthy families who helped the country get through the pandemic, only to tag them as oligarchs and threaten closure of their companies later on.
He also said he valued “life above all else,” with his pandemic approach, before asking Congress to reinstate the death penalty and threatening to kill criminals.
Throughout the last four years, the Duterte administration has raised fears of authoritarianism. Last month, the United Nations characterized his rule as “heavy handed” and called out widespread human rights abuses—including the drug war, arbitrary detentions and the vilification of human rights defenders. Recently, he signed the controversial Anti-Terrorism Law, an act that is meant to allow the state to fight terrorists, but is widely seen as a tool that can be used to silence critics because of its vague definition of “terrorist.”
Still, his popularity endures among the Filipino people, with his trust and approval ratings remaining high.
This year’s annual SONA was also historic in that it saw many lawmakers dial in via video calls instead of gathering at the House of Representatives. Only 50 were invited to attend physically—not including Vice President Leni Robredo with whom the President has constantly clashed. In another historic first, she only received a Zoom invitation before the event.
A few hours before the speech, several invitees’ coronavirus swab tests yielded positive results raising the possibility of a sudden change of format. The address pushed through as planned, and lasted for one hour and 41 minutes.