The Last SONA: How Presidents of the Philippines Deliver Their Swan Song

It's both a legacy and forward-looking address.
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President Rodrigo Duterte will deliver the final State of the Nation Address of his six-year presidency on July 26, one that will be watched for clues on his plans post-Malacanang and for how he will define his legacy.

The 76-year-old Duterte, who has floated the idea of running for vice president, will enter his final year with the Philippines struggling to stay afloat from the COVID-19 pandemic. There's also the festering dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea.

Unlike SONA number one to five, the president's sixth and last address is more than the usual litany of achievements of the administration. It's the chief executive's swan song -- one last chance to define their legacy and set the tone for elections the following year.

"It's his final hurrah to define what he wants to be his legacy," University of Santo Tomas Department of Political Science Chair Dennis Coronacion told reportr.

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"He, as president, will never get the chance to talk again in front of Congress and in front of officials and ambassadors about his achievements. It will be the last time,"  he said.

Take the late president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III's final SONA, which he opened by touting his abolition of the wang-wang, and his administration's push for transparency.

"Mga Boss, ito ang kuwento ng ating paglalakbay sa Daang Matuwid," Aquino said in the opening remarks of his 2015 SONA -- cementing what he and his administration would be remembered for until his death.

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The final push and the lame duck effect

President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his penultimate SONA, July 27, 2020 Presidential Photo

Past Philippine presidents have utilized their final SONAs to make "one last push" for a measure that they hope would be the cherry on top of their legacy as they enter their lame duck phase, analyst Coronacion said.

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When the late Noynoy Aquino delivered his final SONA, he made a final pitch for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. In 2009, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo asked Congress to prioritize the expansion of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

"When you're at the point of the final SONA, all presidents already have this realization that they could only do so much with the little time they have left. That's why they make it a point to have like a 'one last push'," Coronacion said.

The pandemic struck in Duterte's last two years in office. COVID-19 has killed 26,000 Filipinos and plunged millions into poverty.

Nearly half of Filipino families or 49% view themselves as poor according to a May 2021 Social Weather Survey.  Of the estimated 12.4 million "poor" families in May 2021, 2.4 million were "newly poor," SWS said, meaning they only considered themselves as poor during the term of President Duterte.

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Duterte has asked Congress to prioritize measures that would help uplift the country from the pandemic. These are the Comprehensive Tax Reform Program and the Retail Trade Liberalization Act, the Foreign Investments Act, and the Public Service Act.

"There's also this expectation that the president will achieve less because of the lame duck effect. His allies would now prioritize their own interest--the 2022 elections," Coronacion said.

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Conciliatory or combative?

President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his penultimate SONA, July 27, 2020 Presidential Photo

Ideally, most presidents take on a conciliatory tone when delivering their final SONA according to Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. When one is nearing the end of a presidency, taking such a tone shows confidence in one's legacy, he said.

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"There should be nothing left to prove at this point because nabigyan ka na ng pagkakataon. It should be about your achievements. Ano ba ang nagawa mo?" Casiple said. "What your critics say shouldn't matter anymore because you're on your way out. You're entering the lame duck phase."

"There's no reason for you to feel insecure about what your critics are saying so the rhetoric should no longer be combative," Coronacion added.

Take Arroyo's final SONA 2009. In her speech, the economics professor lectured those who want to be president -- showing confidence in her position in history.

"To those who want to be President, this advice: If you really want something done, just do it. Do it hard, do it well. Don’t pussyfoot. Don’t pander. And don’t say bad words in public," she said.

That was a jab against then-presidential aspirant Mar Roxas, Arroyo's former trade secretary, who punctuated a public tirade against her with cuss words.

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Come the final SONA, the next thing that people are watching out for is the president's anointed one. Duterte has yet to name one as he continues to destroy a political roadblock for his anointed one: Sen. Manny Pacquiao.

President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his penultimate SONA, July 27, 2020 Presidential Photo
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Should Duterte's anointed one suffer a loss in the elections, he risks his legacy. If it were the other way around, he cements it in history.

"He risks his legacy. It might be negated if someone from the opposition wins. But if his anointed one wins, he's set for life," Coronacion said.

But whether an ally or critic of Duterte wins in the upcoming elections, what's sure is that on June 30, 2022, he will step down from power and pass the reins to the country's new elected leader.

And as the late president Cory Aquino said in her final SONA: "This is the glory of democracy, that its most solemn moment should be the peaceful transfer of power."

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