The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte dreams of holding power for years to come

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is firming up plans to remain in power beyond next year, when his single-term limit expires. (Aaron Favila/AP)

MANILA — He rules a nation of 110 million racked by a drug war, a persistent communist insurgency and a surging pandemic. Yet he is often absent from public view, regularly sleeps until the afternoon and makes rambling televised speeches that drag into the early hours of the morning.

Now, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is firming up plans to remain in power beyond next year, when his legally stipulated single term ends — much as Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey stayed at the helm through constitutional maneuvering.

“You really want it? Then I will run for vice president,” Duterte said in one of his late-night discourses this week. “Then I will continue the crusade. I’m worried about drugs and insurgency.”

Like the Philippines’ Marcos and Aquino families before him, the 76-year-old leader appears to be forging a dynasty, planning to maintain influence over the presidency either through his daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio or close aide Christopher “Bong” Go, one of whom is likely to run as his nominal successor. The election is in May; if the plan is successful, Duterte could effectively hold sway until 2028.

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While Duterte has been known to make contradictory statements, his blueprint heralds more tumult in the Philippines amid questions over his health, competence and human rights record. It also fuels uncertainties in ties with the United States, a frequent target of the president’s expletive-laden outbursts. His war on drugs, meanwhile, looks set to drag on despite thousands of deaths and an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into alleged crimes against humanity.

Many Filipinos are all right with that. Some 91 percent were satisfied with his performance, according to Pulse Asia in September, despite a recession and record hunger. A double Duterte ticket, with Duterte-Carpio as president, was the top pick in a June survey by the same pollster. (The populist leader said this year that women were not fit for the presidency, but he and his daughter previously shared power as mayor and vice mayor of the southern city of Davao, swapping roles when their terms were up.)

In the five years since he took office, Duterte has torn up the presidential playbook. He has threatened to kill drug suspects, joked about rape and cursed Pope Francis. He has chided the United States, his treaty ally, while moving closer to China. His absences from the public eye in the coronavirus pandemic have fueled accusations from his critics that he is not fit for the job.

Then there are his odd hours. He has skipped international meetings for power naps, and his spokesmen have cited the president’s need to sleep as a reason for his absence or tardiness at the occasional morning appointment — including a visit to earthquake victims and a military graduation ceremony. A photo of Duterte asleep under a mosquito net in his Davao home inspired performance art at a protest in May.

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Duterte declared in 2016 that his day begins at 1 p.m. “I don’t care about your 8-to-5,” he said shortly after his election. Last year, he said work started around 2 p.m. and could go “until the night, no limit. . . . It can reach 2, 3 o’clock in the morning.”

The presidential palace did not respond to requests for comment on Duterte’s routine. The palace said last year that Duterte was not interested in extending his term, and he has publicly considered quitting several times. He has said that his critics are “irrelevant” and “useless,” and that they have to pray harder for him to die.

Those familiar with Duterte say his nocturnal schedule forces those around him — from staff to the press corps — to burn the midnight oil. And although the president’s sleep patterns have become a recurring joke for some, the things he says and does when the country is asleep are more reason for Filipinos to keep their eyes peeled.

“Some journalists wind up their work for the day at 5 p.m., the usual deadline for newspaper stories,” said Alexis Romero, a reporter at the Philippine Star. But for those covering the presidential palace, he said, “the action has just started.”

Last week, Duterte’s address ended about 2:30 a.m. “There’s no problem even if it airs late at night, because [state television channel] PTV-4 airs it the next day,” said presidential spokesman Harry Roque.

While Duterte’s allies chalk up his night-owl tendencies to his personality, experts say his style also serves to further his interests as a performative, populist leader.

“He loves to confuse his political rivals in order not to telegraph his intent,” said Julio Teehankee, a professor of political science at De La Salle University.

The timing of Duterte’s speeches means people winding down from their day don’t have the energy to listen in, said Gene Segarra Navera, a lecturer in public discourse at the National University of Singapore.

Navera noted three recurring Duterte strategies: the construction of an enemy, such as drug addicts or communists; the bolstering of his government; and the dismissal or trivialization of his critics.

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“His speeches are rambling, incoherent, all over the place. But there is method to his so-called madness,” he said.

In Duterte’s recent state-of-the-nation speech, updates on his achievements were interspersed with rants about communists, praise for China and other diversions. He concluded the nearly three-hour speech by saying he needed to go to the bathroom.

Duterte’s plans also appear to be born of personal necessity. Analysts say he could be pushing to remain in a position of power so he can be shielded by whoever is president from future lawsuits, or force that person to resign and take over the top office himself. This could apply both to lawsuits from political rivals or to the ICC investigation.

On Wednesday, local media revealed additional remarks from Duterte that were edited out of this week’s national broadcast, in which he reportedly said he would drop his candidacy if his daughter would run for president.

Duterte-Carpio said recently that her father had endorsed proposals for her to either give way to a Go-Duterte ticket or team up with Go as vice president.

“I respectfully advise them to stop talking about me and make me the reason for them running or not running,” she said. Go has denied any conflict with Duterte-Carpio.

Although Duterte-Carpio has differentiated her politics from her father’s, analysts say that either option — Go by means of loyalty, and Duterte-Carpio by virtue of familial ties — would protect Duterte after his term.

For his critics, another six years of Duterte — and his rambling, erratic communications — would be disastrous, including for the pandemic response. A mayor of a major city, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about the president, said he and his colleagues were “burned out” and long ago stopped relying on the weekly addresses for policy cues.

He described Duterte’s program, “Talk to the People,” as “barbershop talk” and “like a drinking session . . . but with Filipino lives on the line.”

“There’s nothing to wait [up] for,” he said. “He doesn’t make sense.”

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