Duterte in Absentia

by  Albert Lawrence Idia

NOW YOU see him, now you don’t. Three years into his presidency, President Rodrigo Duterte has slipped out of the public eye sometimes for as long as seven days. Malacañang officials did not comment on the absences perhaps because in a signal to the media that there was nothing to report. In response, the media showed little curiosity about the whereabouts of the president in those times when he did not report for work. 

Where was the President? What was he doing? How was he? – were left unasked and unreported. 

CMFR took note of the exception: Philippine Daily Inquirer’s report on July 21 last year kept track of the president’s public appearances, monitoring as well the periods when the public did not know his whereabouts, described as “downtimes,” during his third year in office. The informative graphics made it easy for the public to analyze the data.

The report “DU30’s third year, more private weekends, fewer functions” was part of the newspaper’s preparation for the third State of the Nation address.

 The Inquirer found that:

  • From July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019, the president showed up at 421 events. This was less than his record in previous years (753 in 2016-2017 and 493 in 2017-2018).
  • While the president had more one-day work weekends, he also had more weekends completely off, compared to his first and second year in office.
  • The president recorded his longest absence so far from May 13 to 19, during which time rumors that he had suffered a heart attack swirled in social media.

Without any more information apart from the frequency of his absences, the report further fuelled long standing speculation about the president’s health. And yet, there was little attempt on the part of reporters to get to the bottom of a critical question: How physically or mentally fit is Rodrigo Duterte for the rigors of the job? The frequency of unexplained absences continued for the rest of the year. 

CMFR notes the most obvious news events when the president’s disappearing act could not escape notice. 

Trips abroad

The habit of not being there stood out during the president’s official trips abroad which are strictly scheduled round the clock. He skipped three events at the 35th ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Thailand from October 31 to November 4: the ASEAN-US Summit, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) meeting and the closing ceremonies. He was late for the official summit photograph taken on November 4. Panelo told the press Duterte had to stop at a restroom before going to the venue. This absence was reported widely, irritating Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. who complained and pointed out that the president was not the only one to depart early. 

It is not the first ASEAN Summit for the president. A Rappler report in 2018 noted his failure to attend key events during the ASEAN Summits in Laos in 2016 and in Singapore in 2018.

Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Juniver Mahilum-West takes President Rodrigo Duterte’s place during taking of family photo of ASEAN leaders in the Plus Three Summit on November 4. Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said he passed by the restroom. | Photo from PCOO, Photo by Robinson Ninal

Mindanao tremors

Destructive quakes shook Mindanao during the last week of October, but the survivors in the affected areas never saw hide nor hair of the president who hails from the region. Media reported that he was at home in Davao City, but did not report the reason for his failure to visit his besieged constituents. 

Rappler was first to observe that Duterte had not visited earthquake-affected areas, noting this was a departure from his custom of visiting calamity-struck places and faithfully attending wakes of dead soldiers and other personalities to condole with the bereaved. 

The “rest” episode 

On November 11, Panelo announced that the president would “rest” from November 12 to 14 because he was overworked and lacked sleep. Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea was tasked to be the “caretaker” of the government. A departure from Malacanang’s usual ambiguity about the president’s whereabouts when he was off the schedule, the announcement intensified concern. Panelo then clarified the president would be working but from his home in Davao.


     “For as long as he curses, his body remains healthy.”

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo on the president’s health in a radio interview on October 11, 2019.