The corruption at the heart of Dutertismo CNN_Ph

The corruption at the heart of Dutertismo Featured

On June 29 last year, in remarks made at the anniversary of a charity, President Duterte gave a new meaning to that biblical phrase, about charity covering a multitude of sins. He said, or rather he joked, that he had stolen from public funds before, but he had used up all of it. Many in the audience laughed.

What did he say, exactly? “I hate corruption. Hindi ako nagmamakalinis [sic]. Marami rin akong nanakaw pero naubos na. So wala na. T*ng*na, hindi ako uma… pero corruption is really out during my term.” Even as a joke, the parts in Filipino are damning. “I hate corruption. I am not pretending to be clean [Or, I am not being holier-than-thou]. I also stole a lot but it’s all used up. So it’s gone. Son of a bitch, I don’t… but corruption is really out during my term.”

Why would the chief executive, the person charged with executing the laws of the land, joke about violating the laws on corruption himself? Because he sees himself as a transgressive leader, and delights in outraging sensibilities. Because he understands this kind of tough talk is part of the appeal of Dutertismo, and he will be seen as authentic. And because he is telling the truth.

Like the American embarrassment he is often compared to, Mr. Duterte likes to talk. Unlike Donald Trump, however, he hardly traffics in projection. Instead, he often indulges in confession.

On Aug. 21, 2016, he admitted — unprompted, unprovoked — that he used to plant evidence when he was a city prosecutor in Davao City. “I’ve learned a lot during my prosecution days. We planted evidence.” (This is the live, beating heart of a disbarment case against him—and because you don’t need to be a lawyer to be President, such a case should fall outside the scope of the largely unchallenged tradition of presidential immunity. It’s worth testing.)

On Sep. 27, 2018, he confessed that his only sin was the extrajudicial killings. “Ano kasalanan ko? Nagnakaw ba ako diyan ni piso? Did I prosecute somebody na pinakulong ko? Ang kasalanan ko lang ’yung extrajudicial killings,” he said. Perhaps the more idiomatic translation of “kasalanan” is not sin, but guilt, as in “What am I guilty of?” But we can use the more literal translation, too: “What’s my sin? Did I steal even P1? Did I prosecute somebody whom I sent to jail? My only sin are those extrajudicial killings.”

We can multiply the examples of President Duterte’s many admissions against self-interest. To be sure, he and his many spokespersons like to use the he-was-joking defense. But consider just these three:

The President was not joking when he defended Solicitor General Jose Calida’s continued participation in government biddings for the chief government lawyer’s security agency. “Why should I fire him? Anything in government as long as there is bidding, there is no problem, that’s OK if he won the bidding.”

But the Constitution expressly prohibits Cabinet officials from being “financially interested in any contract with” the government or any of its agencies, and the antigraft law forbids public officers from receiving any benefit from “the Government or any other part, wherein the public officer in his official capacity has to intervene under the law.”

The President was not joking when, as a presidential candidate, he admitted being given at least three real estate properties and at least two SUVs by his good friend and constituent, Pastor Apollo Quiboloy. “Every time si Pastor magbili, dalawa ’yan. Ang isa sa akin diyan, sigurado (Every time Pastor buys something, he buys two at a time. One of them is for me, for sure),” he said.

The antigraft law prohibits “Directly or indirectly requesting or receiving any gift… for himself or for another, from any person for whom the public officer, in any manner or capacity, has secured or obtained, or will secure or obtain, any Government permit or license.”

And the President was not joking when he repeatedly praised his common-law wife Honeylet’s business acumen. By all accounts, she truly works hard at her businesses. But consider Mr. Duterte’s Honeylet narrative, which he has told often. This version is I think the latest, from Oct. 20. After describing her as his “true love,” the President narrated her rags-to-riches story yet again. “When she came home, she had saved up for capital, she franchised another one and then ventured into the meat business. The meat being sold here is hers. Besides, who would try to compete against the wife of the mayor or President? Ah, now she’s really rich.”

The key passage in the original Bisaya is even more emphatic. “Kinsa man pu’y makig-kompitensya’g asawa ka og mayor o Presidente?”

As we say in French: Mismo.

In telling this story again and again, the President admits to corruption. Simply put, corruption is the misuse of public office for private gain. By Mr. Duterte’s own account, hardworking Honeylet became the biggest supplier of meats in Davao City because, well, who wants to compete against the mayor’s wife?

If this is a joke, it’s on all of us.

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