Duterte to Deliver Final Speech to Congress Amid Crises

MANILA, Philippines (AP) -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is set to deliver his final state of the nation speech Monday before Congress, winding down his six-year term amid a raging pandemic, a battered economy and a legacy overshadowed by a bloody anti-drug crackdown that set off complaints of mass murder before the International Criminal Court.

Allies defended the 76-year-old populist leader's record, with documentaries on state-run TV and speeches highlighting his administration's efforts to fight criminality, poverty, corruption and decades-long communist and Muslim insurgencies, as well as build infrastructure.

They backed calls by the ruling party for Duterte, who took office in mid-2016, to run for vice president when his term ends in June next year -- potentially with his daughter, now a city mayor, running to succeed him in the May 9 elections. Opposition lawyers have threatened to block the move in the Supreme Court, arguing it would breach constitutional term limits. Philippine presidents are limited to a single term.

"Six years is not enough for a very good president," House of Representatives Speaker Lord Allan Velasco told ABS CBN News. Velasco said he would back Duterte's possible bid for the vice presidency. The 1987 Constitution prohibits political dynasties, but the House, where powerful political clans have held sway for generations, hasn't passed a law to enforce the ban.

"The pandemic really hurt us a lot, no one was ready for it, and because of that I can't give the administration a perfect grade," Velasco added.

But increasingly vocal opponents have pounded on Duterte's missteps and handling of key issues, including his refusal to steadfastly confront China's aggressive behavior in the disputed South China Sea, given his cozy ties with President Xi Jinping. They railed at the government's coronavirus vaccination campaign, which has faced delays due to supply problems in a country with the second-largest numbers of infections and deaths in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia.

On the eve of Duterte's speech, left-wing activists hung a huge banner that read "Goodbye, Duterte" on a pedestrian bridge across a highway leading to the heavily guarded Congress in suburban Quezon City. More than 300 legislators and top officials, who were required to get full coronavirus vaccinations, were expected to hear the address.

A few thousand left-wing protesters gathered in a nearby university, then marched toward Congress but were blocked by anti-riot police units.

"His years in office will forever be linked with the thousands of lives lost in extrajudicial killings, and the thousands of lives also lost amid his administration's bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic," opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said in a statement.

The Philippines has reported more than 1.5 million confirmed COVID-19 infections, with 27,224 deaths. Months-long lockdowns and natural disasters caused the economy to plummet by 9.5% last year in the country's worst post-war recession. Businesses could not fully resume nationwide due to continuing virus surges.

Duterte and police officials have denied condoning extrajudicial killings of suspects, although he has publicly threatened to kill suspects. More than 6,000 mostly petty suspects have been killed under his crackdown, but a large number were also gunned down by motorcycle-riding assassins who human rights groups suspect were linked to law enforcement.

"He has not won this war on drugs, because the problem is still there, but a lot of families have lost their breadwinners," Randy Delos Santos told The Associated Press. "We're the biggest loser and we still live in fear."

Delos Santos's 17-year-old nephew, Kian, was shot to death in 2017 by officers, who accused the young student of being a drug courier and alleged that he resisted arrest. A court, however, later found the three officers had murdered the student in a rare conviction of drug crackdown enforcers.

An ICC prosecutor said last month a preliminary examination found reason to believe crimes against humanity had been committed under Duterte's crackdown on drugs and sought permission to open a formal investigation. Duterte said he would never cooperate in the possible investigation.

"Why would I defend or face an accusation before white people? You must be crazy," Duterte said.