The two most powerful Filipino dynasties have dropped the pretence of being united

The Duterte-Marcos alliance has ended as President Marcos Jr has emerged as the greatest threat to his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte

Philippines Vice President Sara Duterte greets her father, outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte, and her mother, Elizabeth Zimmerman, during her inauguration ceremony in Davao City in June 2022. EPA
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In The Autumn of the Patriarch, the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about the twilight years of a fading strongman, who struggled to come to grips with his gradual fall from grace.

Here was a man who was once “so overwhelmed by that outpouring of love [from the people]” that he couldn’t stop admonishing his praetorian guards for keeping him away from his adoring fans. Towards the winter of his life, however, people came to see the “sight of the sunset old man who was contemplating the waterfront with the saddest look in the world”.

Marquez wrote that novel during his exile in Spain under the shadow of a crumbling Franco dictatorship. But his haunting novel, considered “a poem on the solitude of power”, also aptly describes the current state of the Philippines’ most popular president in recent memory, Rodrigo Duterte.

By all accounts, the visibly ageing and increasingly frail former president – who was once hailed as the “Father” (Tatay) of the nation – is now a shell of his former self.

In a bizarre twist of events, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the namesake son of a former dictator, has emerged as the greatest threat to the once powerful Duterte dynasty. And amid an intensifying power struggle between the two camps, the former president is now facing the prospect of several court trials, including by the International Criminal Court, for his alleged human rights violations.

What is at stake is nothing less than the soul of Philippines’ besieged democracy.

Just a year ago, the “UniTeam” between the Marcos and Duterte dynasties seemed invincible. The tandem, composed of Mr Marcos Jr and former presidential daughter, Sara Duterte, who ran as Vice President, cruised through the 2022 elections with the highest margins in contemporary Philippine history.

They won close to 60 per cent of all votes – making them the first-ever tandem to win a clear majority in the Philippines’ single-round, first-past-the-post electoral system. Their closest rivals barely won more than 20 per cent of the votes. It was not even close, yet quite paradoxically, this outcome was far from predetermined.

Just months ahead of the elections, it was Ms Duterte, not Mr Marcos Jr, who was leading the polls of presidential candidates. In contrast, Mr Marcos Jr, who had narrowly lost a vice-presidential race in 2016, barely managed to get about 15 per cent of the votes in pre-election surveys.

Not unlike Marquez’s protagonist, Mr Duterte is confronting a steady and seemingly irreversible fall from grace

In fact, he spent years in political wilderness. Once, his elder sister, Imee, lamented that her brother was “jobless” and was “dying to work” in government while unsuccessfully seeking to overturn his election defeat.

The Marcoses, however, would get their break in late-2021, when both the liberal opposition and the pro-Duterte camps struggled to agree on their preferred presidential candidates. This provided a perfect opening for Mr Marcos Jr to engineer his return to power in style.

Thanks to mediation by stalwarts, most notably former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Ms Duterte decided to run as Mr Marcos Jr’s vice-presidential running mate. In exchange, they expected political gratitude from, if not a servile partner, the next president.

They couldn’t have been more mistaken. As soon as Mr Marcos Jr won the presidency, he began to sing a different tune. His first major move was to deny his key patrons any major position in his administration.

Despite her public expression of interest, Ms Duterte wasn’t given the prized position of Defence Secretary. Meanwhile, Ms Arroyo was snubbed in favour of Mr Marcos Jr’s first cousin, Martin Romualdez, for the leadership of the House of Representatives.

Over the next year, Mr Marcos Jr chipped away at key Duterte policy legacies by, among other things, drawing down his predecessor’s deadly “drug war” and, crucially, adopting an increasingly West-friendly and Sino-sceptic foreign policy. In contrast to the Beijing-friendly Duterte administration, he adopted a tougher stance in the South China Sea disputes, expanded America’s access to Philippine military bases, and pulled his country out of projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

When pro-Duterte allies tried to push back by allegedly organising a plot to oust Mr Romualdez as the Speaker, they faced stiff resistance. The upshot was the demotion of Ms Arroyo in the ranks of House leadership, triggering a public feud between Mr Romualdez and Ms Duterte.

Unable to appreciate the new state of affairs, an ageing yet still influential Mr Duterte began to strike back with growing ferocity. He challenged his successor’s foreign policy by unilaterally arranging a special meeting with China’s leadership in Beijing. But tensions reached new heights when his daughter was stripped of special confidential funds by Marcos allies in the legislature.

Refusing to stand idly by, the former president criticised the legislature, calling it a “rotten” institution, prompting further defections from party-mates, who had begun joining the pro-Marcos camp en masse. Philippine courts also began handing favourable rulings to top Duterte critics, most notably Nobel Laureate journalist Maria Ressa and former senator and justice secretary Leila Delima.

Characteristically stubborn and perilously tone-deaf, the pro-Duterte camp escalated its attack on pro-Marcos legislators. Although the notoriously conflict-avoidant incumbent tried to once again project a united front, downplaying feuds within the governing coalition, there are increasing signs that a wholesale crackdown on the Dutertes could be in the offing.

To begin with, Ms Duterte is facing potential impeachment proceedings in the legislature, which is also exploring possible revocation of the broadcasting franchise of a staunchly pro-Duterte news channel for allegedly spreading “fake news”. In an utter state of desperation, the former president has threatened to run for high office in coming elections in order to confront the Marcos Jr administration and protect his camp.

But the Duterte dynasty faces an even more grim prospect.

In a potential policy shift with major implications, the Marcos Jr administration has indicated its openness to allowing the ICC to investigate the former president and his colleagues, who face allegations of overseeing extrajudicial killings in the past. Pro-Marcos legislators have openly called on the government to co-operate with the international court.

Meanwhile, Mr Duterte also faces criminal complaints for allegedly threatening certain members of the legislature in public. Not unlike Marquez’s protagonist, Mr Duterte is confronting a steady and seemingly irreversible fall from grace. But he is unlikely to go gently into the night; if anything, he is expected to up the ante and defy an increasingly inauspicious political landscape.

Much, however, will depend on Mr Marcos Jr, who now holds all the cards. Should he co-operate with the ICC and support his legislative allies’ plans against the Dutertes, he may end up politically eliminating a once-powerful dynasty that its critics have long viewed to be among the biggest threats to Asia’s oldest liberal democracy.

Published: December 14, 2023, 4:00 AM
Updated: December 15, 2023, 7:27 PM