Wild rumors and speculations swirled in the Philippine capital a week ago after an air ambulance Lear Jet  from Singapore landed on Saturday afternoon (Aug. 15) at Francisco Bangoy International Airport in Davao City.

Half an hour later, it took off and returned to the city-state and reportedly landed not at Changi Airport but in a secluded air base near the Malaysian border where heads of government usually land when they officially visit the tiny but wealthy Southeast Asian city-state.

Rodrigo Duterte’s official spokesman, Harry Roque, immediately came out with a statement the next day, saying the popular leader never left the country but failed to mention the mysterious plane that picked up a patient in Davao City.

But that did not help end speculation on the unnamed passenger of the plane and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) did not explain the flight. It has all the information about the passengers’ manifest and the fight plan of the aircraft.

The agency’s silence has added gasoline to burning speculations as the Office of the President was also silent on Duterte’s whereabouts after he disappeared from public view days after he had met with his Cabinet in Davao City.

Duterte’s trusted aide who he had helped win a seat in the Senate, Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, tried to dispel rumors by producing a photograph of the president eating at his home with his partner and daughter. Honeylet Avancena, was even holding a newspaper, to prove it was taken on the same day the picture was released to the public.

That picture was doubted by many people because the current technology allows manipulation of images by removing and adding another person on a photograph.

The confusion was made worse when Roque, in his regular news briefing, told journalists the president was in “perpetual isolation” after one of his Cabinet members got infected by the dreaded coronavirus disease (Covid-19).

Although he corrected himself later, his statements had placed in doubt the president’s physical presence in a meeting with his officials that day in Davao City.

This forced Go to show a short video of the president to further dispel the rumors and, later on Monday night (Aug. 17), Duterte was forced to go on a virtual meeting with his key officials.

Duterte defended his right to travel anywhere he wanted to go as guaranteed by the Philippine constitution, but he neither confirmed nor denied he had left the country. 

His loyal assistant, Go, was also a no-show at the Senate session on Aug. 17 as well as during a congressional public inquiry on the state-run medical insurance corporation the next day as chair of the upper chamber’s health committee.

Duterte disappeared again from the public view after his late Monday night appearance during a virtual meeting with a small group of his key officials.

The good news is the air ambulance from Singapore returned to Davao City on Friday morning and probably the president can hold a physical meeting again this week, ending his week-long “perpetual isolation” in the words of Harry Roque.

But that was again speculation and based on wild rumors as no one really knows the true health conditions of a 75-year-old leader who has admitted to have many illnesses and is very vulnerable to the coronavirus infection.

Duterte’s physical and mental health are a closely guarded secret. They are considered state secrets because they could affect the country’s national security interests as well as the stability and the social cohesion of the country.

The Supreme Court has rejected a petition from a lawyer to compel the government to disclose Duterte’s physical health conditions even after he appeared very weak in some instances.

In more than five months since the coronavirus outbreak in early March, the president has cut down on his travels and meetings. He has been in his hometown in Davao City, Zamboanga City and Jolo to defuse tension between soldiers and local police and has avoided public gatherings, except when he delivered a State-of-the-Nation Address at Congress last month.

In the country’s history since the end of the Second World War, there had been only four abrupt leadership changes. Two presidents died while in office and two others were removed by popular uprising backed by the military.

Manuel Roxas died of a heart attack and Ramon Magsaysay died in a plane crash. Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by a civilian uprising after a failed coup attempt and Joseph Estrada was forced to resign when the military supported a massive civilian protest.

The other leadership changes were peaceful transitions after elections. Elpidio Quirino, who replaced Roxas, was defeated by Ramon Magsaysay in 1953. Carlos Garcia, who succeeded Magsaysay, was defeated by Diosdado Macapagal in 1961 and he was defeated by Ferdinand Marcos in 1965.

Corazon Aquino, who rose to power after Marcos was toppled, was replaced by Fidel Ramos in 1992 elections. She was no longer eligible to run for another term under the 1987 Constitution. 

Ramos was succeeded by Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo rose from the vice presidency when Estrada quit in 2001 due to corruption charges, for which he was convicted of plunder but was later pardoned.

Arroyo, who is the daughter of a former president Macapagal, was succeeded by Corazon Aquino’s son, Benigno Simeon in 2010. He was succeeded by Duterte in 2016.

Health concerns have never been an issue when it comes to  leadership changes in the Philippines but rumors of a leader’s failing health could be a very dangerous recipe for instability and unrest.

Marcos’ failing health towards his last days in office in the 1980’s gave rise to factionalism within his government as ambitious politicians belonging to rival factions started plotting to seize power in case something happened to him.

But the true state of his health was not known until his hasty escape from Malacañang to Hawaii in February 1986. There had been rumors about his medical conditions but it was not officially admitted until he was toppled from power.

Fidel Ramos, an ex-general, was the only leader who made public his health conditions when he was confined at the Makati Medical Center for a carotid procedure.

But there were no talks of possible succession as he quickly recovered and finished his single, six-year term in 1998. Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino also had some medical conditions but they were not life-threatening and did not trigger discussions on succession.

Four years after he assumed office, there were already talks about Duterte’s succession even before the coronavirus pandemic struck the country, as political observers began noticing his frail conditions and his constant disappearances from the public view without any explanation.

Many political analysts have warned of a bloody and messy succession in case something happened to the president, as his supporters would likely prevent a smooth transition and allow the opposition Vice President Leni Robredo to assume the position.

They painted a very gloomy scenario as the sickly leader had offered the presidency to some political personalities who were not even in the line of succession under the 1987 Constitution.

Under the Constitution, the vice president takes over in case of the leader’s death or he is incapacitated. The Senate President is the third in line and the Speaker of the House is No. 4.*

Some even warn of a possible bloody civil war in case the leader is gone, as the Philippines has been long polarized by the government’s keyboard warriors, deeply dividing the country.

It did not help that Duterte himself has been attacking his political foes and critics every chance he got, including in his last State-of-the-Nation Address, which was supposed to be an opportunity for him to call for  a national unity in the face of worsening health crisis brought by the pandemic.

Instead he chose to use the occasion to attack the political opposition, wealthy businessmen he perceived to be helping his enemies and threaten his critics and his favorite bogeyman — corrupt officials and drug dealers.

But he has miserably failed in his campaign promise to end corruption, crime and the drug problem beyond the six months he had promised. Drugs imported from China still flood the streets and the level of corruption has even increased after he failed to punish his own officials who were suspected to be involved.

His failures have driven a strong opposition to his policies from among ordinary citizens who were no longer afraid of his threats and intimidation. During his first two years in office, he completely controlled the narrative through threats, and aided by his army of trolls, silenced the opposition.

In fact, the political opposition was wiped out in the 2019 midterm elections, a first time in the country’s history as he gained absolute control of the government and the legislature. Even in the courts, except for two associate justices, he already has appointed most of the sitting magistrates. 

So his early departure from power due to his failing health was a concern as there could be uncertainty.

But doomsayers could be wrong in case there would be a leadership change in the country as there are stable institutions, like the military, that will ensure the security and safety of the Republic.

The military is like a glue that holds together the country as shown in the last three decades, protecting and preserving democratic institutions.

Since the ouster of the former dictator, the military has slowly transformed itself into a more professional organization, shedding off the arrogance and power it had accumulated during martial law and resisting temptations to seize state power.

It has proven itself loyal to the flag and the constitution in defending the governments of Aquino and Arroyo against rogue elements seeking to grab power and taking the side of the people in two EDSA revolts.

Thus, there is no doubt it will resist any extra-constitutional authority and allow a smooth transition when the time comes, even if Duterte had tried to cultivate support from the armed forces by appointing nearly 50 retired generals into civilian positions in government.

The military, as an institution, has learned its lessons from numerous past attempts to seize power and Duterte’s efforts to surround himself with ex-generals only showed his insecurity.

The military, as an institution, is very much stable and secure. The Philippines is in safe hands and is guaranteed a peaceful and smooth transition in case it happens.

* This was revised to correct the original sentence, which stated that the Chief Justice is included in the constitutional line of succession. The line of succession stops at the Speaker of the House of Representatives.