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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

EXPLAINER: The State of the Nation Address (SONA) in a nutshell

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A Constitutional Mandate

All eyes are, indeed, on President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s 6th and last state of the nation address (SONA) set to be delivered on the 26th of July at the Batasang Pambansa Complex in Quezon City. For members of the Congress and other physically invited government officials, it is the time to show off their elegant traditional Filipino dress or barong tagalog created by famous designers. Some viewers, on the other hand, take this time to busy themselves with counting the number of applauses received by the President from the attendees and monitor the length of his speech. Paying attention to these traditions, however, overshadows the intention of the annual SONA prescribed by the 1987 Philippine Constitution itself.

An annual SONA is a constitutional obligation of the Philippine President. Under Section 23 of Article VII, the Philippine President is constitutionally mandated to address the Congress at the opening of its regular session.  Every 4th Monday of July, the Philippine President is expected to deliver a speech containing reports on the state of the country, the agenda of the government for the coming year, and the legislative proposals of the President to the Philippine Congress.  Therefore, SONA, in effect, allows the Filipino people to know the status of the country and the strategy of the Philippine government on its response to the pressing issues through government policies and programs.  

Procedural Traditions

After electing officials through a separate morning session, a concurrent resolution is filed by both chambers stating their readiness to hear the address of the Philippine President. With the invitation from the Congress, the President appears before the members of the two chambers in a joint session held in the Session Hall of the House of Representatives. The Philippine Congress acts as the official host, issuing tickets and doing all the needed preparations for the SONA.

In the afternoon, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Sergeant-at-Arms of both houses of Congress welcome the arrival of the President. The Chief of Staff of AFP escorts the President past the Honor Guard. Symbolizing the independence of the Congress as a coequal branch, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the lower house replaces the military escort of the President on his way to the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office (PLLO) – the official chief executive’s office in the House of Representatives. The Senate President and the House Speaker, then, traditionally pay a courtesy call on the President in the PLLO.

After the courtesy call, the appointed welcoming committee escort the President into the Session Hall. The Senate President, then, calls the joint session of the Congress to order while the House Speaker announces the arrival of the President. Such announcement is followed by the singing of the Philippine national anthem and the invocation. After which, the President proceeds to the rostrum to deliver the SONA.

Once the President is done with his message, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate close the Joint Session of Congress for their respective chambers.

The Language of SONA

Aside from the procedural traditions during SONA, it is worthy to note the language that is used by Philippine Presidents when making their address to the Congress. Although there is no existing rule, the Philippine President is always expected to deliver his/her message to the Congress using the English language. Only former President Benigno Simeon Aquino III departed from this tradition and delivered his speeches entirely in Filipino. This effort, however, was not copied by his successor, Pres. Duterte, at least during his previous SONAs.

Preferring Filipino over the English language goes beyond the shallow idea of nationalism. For many ordinary Filipinos, using the Filipino language during SONA means inclusivity. The constant subscription of a Philippine President to the English language does not serve any purpose; instead, it only preserves the gap between the government and the Filipino people. The public cannot keep up with the SONA simply because the language does not accommodate their need. Truth be told – Filipinos who cannot eloquently make use of the English language as a primary medium of communication outnumber those who can, and that the Filipino language remains the language of the Filipino people. Using English, then, wastes the available chance of informing the public through the annual SONA.

Hence, using a language that the Filipinos are more comfortable with means permitting them to participate, albeit one-way, in the President’s SONA. It removes the common disinterest of the public in paying attention to the important message of the President concerning the management of the country because the language allows them to absorb and dissect the speech sans the struggle inherent in their unfamiliarity with the medium of communication. It is, perhaps, safe to say then that that the choice of language of the President determines the target audience of the SONA. In the case of speeches written in English, it is obvious that inclusivity is not present.  

The 2021 SONA

For an outgoing elected Philippine President, his/her last state of the nation address usually serves as an opportunity to highlight the improvements made under his/her leadership. As expected, Pres. Duterte will make use of his last SONA to flaunt his accomplishments 5 years into his term. Sec. Harry Roque specifically revealed that Duterte’s speech will cover the progress of the nation, social and infrastructure programs, peace and security, and foreign policy under the leadership of Duterte. While this is not unusual, the success of President Duterte’s 2021 SONA in convincing the Filipino people amid the ongoing health crisis holds a significant value given his possible run for vice president and the attempt of his daughter and currently the Davao City mayor, Sarah Duterte, to succeed his father in the upcoming 2022 Presidential Election.    

The COVID-19 global health crisis will definitely set the tone for the Presidential Election. The years-long economic progress of the country has been put on hold as the country grapples with the containment of the community transmission. This has made many Filipinos jobless resulting to a higher percentage of Filipinos living below the poverty line. Receiving the adverse effects of the economic recession last year brought about by the government response to the pandemic, Filipino voters will most likely bring their frustrations with them on the election day.   

The economic distress of the Filipino people makes Duterte’s last SONA special. Coupled with his charismatic appeal to the ordinary Filipinos, Duterte could turn the mood of the voters in his favor by providing a clear vision of the administration’s response to the pandemic taking a toll across socio-economic classes. His failure to do so may translate into the dissatisfaction of the Filipinos that will affect the tone of next year’s election. It is expected of the President, then, to sell his leadership to the public in his SONA demanded primarily by his possible run for the vice president and the election chances of political figures benefitting from his popularity. Thus, what is at stake here is the kind of governance that the country will have for the next 6 years.

Although it is unlikely to happen, the 2021 SONA must not be treated as a pre-election campaign. While the President is at liberty to revere himself as a way of his political posturing, Duterte should be guided by what must be heard by the Filipino people and refrain from feeding Filipinos with false narrative of success under his watch. This admission, anyways, is an important step for the betterment of the lives of the Filipinos. When a leader is not oblivious to the real situation, the panacea to the problem becomes more visible.    

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