"This near-encounter offers us precious insight into the nature of our leaders."
We can look at the debate-that-never-was between President Rodrigo Duterte and former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio in different ways.
We can see it as an act of a bully backing down from an opponent he had initially thought he could defeat.
On Wednesday, the President, on national television, said: “Itong Carpio naman, sulat nang sulat ng mga decision para sa kanyang utak lang. Isa ring ug*k itong… Bak… Supreme Court justice pareho man tayo abugado. Gusto—eh gusto mo magdebate tayo (This Carpio, he keeps on writing decisions for his mind. He is ... Supreme Court justice but we are both lawyers. If you want we can debate)?”
Mr. Duterte said Caprio and former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario were responsible for the withdrawal of the Philippine Navy ships during the 2012 Scarborough standoff. If they could prove he is wrong, he said, he would resign.
On Thursday, Carpio accepted the challenge and the Philippine Bar Association, the oldest voluntary private organization of lawyers in the country, offered to host the event.
On Friday, however, Palace spokesman Harry Roque announced the President had been advised against pushing through with the challenge. It did not befit Duterte to debate a private citizen, an ordinary lawyer, Roque said, forgetting it was his boss who dared Carpio in the first place.
Another concern, the President’s mouthpiece said, was that the Chief Executive might inadvertently spill some confidential information during the debate.
Roque also said the President had instructed him to debate Carpio, instead, and that he was up to the challenge.
In our culture, cowardice, especially if it follows bravado, is not seen as a virtue.
The spokesman’s words also give us the impression that the President is a loose cannon who must be reined in by his close aides. Such reckless behavior by a leader does not inspire much confidence among the people especially since we are still in the thick of a health and economic crisis.
We can see this episode as a tragicomedy, a distraction when the task at hand—defending our sovereignty from China—looms large. Carpio and Duterte must not even be fighting each other. Beijing would have had a grand time watching the debate. With the office Duterte holds and with Carpio’s mastery of the issue, they should instead be on the same side fighting China’s shameless acts.
This near-encounter, most of all, offers us precious insight into the nature of our leaders: The depth—or shallowness—of their knowledge, and the strength—or weakness—of their character.