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Opinion | National

MEL STA. MARIA | Duterte Presidential oath-taking: breaking tradition, for what?

President-elect Rodrigo Duterte.
The online news portal of TV5

When President Ramon Magsaysay took his oath of office as President, my mother, now 89 years old, was present among the crowd. What was etched in her memory was how Magsaysay set the personal tone for the occasion. He requested the mass of people to come near the stage where he was to make his speech. They moved closer. At that point, my mother felt that, though the request was a simple gesture, it was a symbolic act that relayed a more profound message: that President Magsaysay was thankful of the people's trust, that he desired to be near the people, to let them feel that he was not a leader to fear, and that he was the president of all the Filipinos where sovereignty resides. That simple "request" revealed Magsaysay's humility and profound mindset of inclusiveness for all – an indelible mark of a great leader.

Symbols and traditions have significance in our lives, in our society and in our history. They make us remember the value of an event beyond its formalities. A presidential inauguration is one occasion which, if done the right way, carries so much meaning for the people – a convergence, no less, of so many positive sentiments: unity, hope, inspiration, inclusiveness, non-alienation and constitutionalism.

The President and Vice-President take the oath together at the same place to signify the strength of a democratic nation – that power will always transfer in a peaceful, civil and immediate manner. The vice-president takes his/her oath first and then followed by the president. Should anything fatally happen in a split second to the president, the vice-president is there for the immediate succession of power. Of course that eventuality may not occur, but it is a simple and symbolic sequence of events that is loaded with constitutional significance.

The depth of its meaning becomes more pronounced in case that the president and the vice-president belong to opposing political parties. It sends an inspiring message that, despite differences in persuasion, the two highest officials of the land, in front of and for all the people, can be united. To a larger extent, it bespeaks of national unity in national diversity – a very harmonizing political statement after a very combative, acrimonious, and divisive campaign.

And then the oath of office is administered. Traditionally, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administers the solemn oath – and not any other justice or government officer. The president-elect and the vice-president-elect do not participate in the selection of the administrator. This is not without reason. It symbolizes our democratic system of checks-and-balances. The executive's highest officers take their oath before the judiciary's highest officer who, constitutionally, is authorized to stop any future presidential abuse. Moreover, this non-participation prevents any undue perception that government is a "club" or "association" of people who can unduly and casually influence one another or act on an unwritten code of complicity and, yes, conspiracy – that the democratic system of checks-and-balances cannot be affected by selection, friendship and close relationships.

Breaking this tradition was, I believe, the initial mistake of President Benigno Aquino III. The one who administered to him the oath was not then Chief Justice Renato Corona but then Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, who, after retirement, became the ombudsman. There is nothing, per se, wrong about it. But, as a consequence, no matter how independent Ombudsman Morales was, a perception, rightly or wrongly, of pro-PNoy-bias colored her resolutions.

Parenthetically, what makes the situation more profound in the present situation is that we have a female Chief Justice in the person of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and a male President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, a situation that gives added meaning to the inauguration – a recognition of gender-equality in our country.
And the most important tradition of all – the inauguration is held in an open-field – at the Luneta Grandstand – where the mass of Filipino people can freely attend, rain or shine, if they want to. The free-place unmistakably suggests an open-invitation to all to participate in a momentous and historic event – an occasion not merely to celebrate the personal triumph of one man and one woman but, more importantly, to rejoice in the nation's success in transferring power peacefully. It is the Filipino people's celebration. And the fact that it is not done in an enclosed area is to highlight the grandness, the beauty and breadth of the Philippines, the country we love and must preserve – all these happening while the Philippine flag flutters proudly in the tropical breeze against the blue sky.

Beyond doubt, a presidential inauguration and the manner, place, and time of its celebration are vested with public interest.

Now let us look at the plans for the inauguration of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte. The incoming administration's initial salvo is clearly to break the inaugural-tradition because that is how President-elect Duterte personally desired it to be.

If reports are correct, the oath-taking will be done, not in the Luneta Grandstand, but immediately in the corridors of power, specifically at the Rizal Hall of Malacañang. It was decided that vice-president-elect Leni Robredo will not take her oath in the same place. Consequently, she will separately do it in the province.

President-elect Duterte will take his oath before the Supreme Court magistrate of his personal choice, his fraternity brother, Supreme Court Associate Justice Bienvenido Reyes.

There will only be chosen attendees: his family members, appointed cabinet members and members of the diplomatic corps, police, military, judiciary, Congress (without their spouses and children), and finally Duterte's friends who supported him in the campaign and in the elections. All in all, the guests will be limited only to about 500 people by choice.

There will be no open invitation to the mass of Filipino people to actually and personally see, participate and join the event. The oath-taking will be done in a restricted enclosed portion in Malacañan Palace, where, except for those who are invited, all other Filipino citizens are off-limits. We can just impersonally watch the actual, slightly delayed or taped proceedings on TV and hear it on radio.

No doubt, Duterte wants to relay a message of change. But what sort of message does President-elect Duterte and his people wish to convey? What is the meaning for them of this break in the inaugural tradition? Is this for Duterte's personal satisfaction only, or is there a greater and fundamental public interest consideration justifying the break of tradition with all its meaningful content? Does Duterte think that his personal wishes are paramount than the public interest? Or does he equate public interest with his own personal interest? Surely, as a president-to-be, doing the former entails sacrifice while catering to the latter is selfish. I just hope President-elect Duterte and his cabinet know the important distinction.

I still believe in what Gustav Mahler said: "Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." There are times when we need the celebration of tradition to continually remind us that our freedom was not gained very cheaply and that many died for it; that our democratic institutions must continue; and that, as Abraham Lincoln said, the government is "of the people, by the people, for the people", and not only the exclusive conclave of so-called leaders who demand fear of the law from the citizenry, but who, themselves, do not fear the law.

I hope President-elect Duterte and his cabinet, in breaking tradition, do not portend the break of other things or events we hold dear: our history, constitution and democratic way of life.

I wish President-elect Duterte all the best under the rule of law.