Duterte is bowing out of politics, and most Filipinos don't want an encore

The Philippine president toyed with options for staying in power, but the writing is on the wall
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte waves upon his arrival at the airport in the capital Amman on September 5, 2018. (Photo by KHALIL MAZRAAWI / AFP)

One thing we've learned about populists in recent years is that it’s best to take their words seriously, but not literally. With Rodrigo Duterte, however, it is best to take his words seriously, and at times also literally. For example, the Philippine president has over the past five years overseen a drug war that's been as bloody as he had warned it would be during his 2016 presidential campaign.

But given his flair for the dramatic, Mr Duterte can be rhetorically playful and sometimes even self-indulgent with facts. Capturing headlines with click-bait comments is second nature to populists like Mr Duterte. It's precisely why some observers have been circumspect about his bolt-from-the-blue announcement this week to retire from politics after he steps down next year. After all, this is the same person who once said he would retire at the end of his term as a city mayor, only to change his mind at the 11th hour.

Mr Duterte also has strong motivations to remain in government, given his concerns about a potential prosecution by the International Criminal Court. He may also be mindful of possible blowback over his perceived mismanagement of the pandemic, with the Philippines posting one of Asia's highest Covid-19 infection rates and deepest economic recessions.

Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons to believe Mr Duterte really is entering his twilight months in politics, at least as an elected official.

Amid his declining popularity and widespread opposition to his original plan to run for vice president next year, he is instead set to mobilise support for his anointed successors. His daughter, Sara Duterte, and lifelong aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, are expected to run for the presidency and vice presidency respectively. Mr Duterte's suspected aim to retain power through proxies could, however, face headwinds; Mr Duterte's rivals, including former allies, are formidable.

What a difference a few months can make in politics.

In June, a potential “Duterte-Duterte” tandem was seen as almost unbeatable in the 2022 election, with Sara Duterte, currently mayor of Davao City, holding a commanding lead in the polls.

At the time, Mr Duterte was the top choice for the vice presidency.

It is worth mentioning that unlike in the US, where the presidential and vice presidential candidates run on single ticket, the Philippines has separate elections for the top two offices. This way, the country's elite determined decades ago, most prized offices and the election spoils could be shared by competing parties.

However, it soon became clear that Mr Duterte preferred a “tandemocracy”, whereby he would run for vice president after the end of his presidency and Mr Go would run to take his place in the top job. That enraged Sara Duterte, who began calling her father out over it in public.

Infighting between the Dutertes alienated many of their supporters, who began to gravitate towards other likeminded contenders. Former allies such as Manny Pacquiao, the boxer turned statesman, revolted against Mr Duterte. Mr Pacquiao recently announced his own bid to run for president.

The result of all this has been infighting within the ruling party that eventually splintered it into multiple factions and undercut its advantage.

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What a difference a few months can make in politics

To make matters worse, a series of corruption scandals have rocked the Duterte administration, which was elected on an anti-corruption platform. Sensing an opening ahead of this election season, Mr Duterte's critics and rivals have begun scoring political points. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, a one-time Duterte ally, accused the government of plundering scarce resources amid a raging pandemic, calling it a “plundemic”.

Although he is still popular, Mr Duterte’s approval ratings have suffered a steep decline in recent months, dropping by 21 per cent between last November and June. A vast majority of Filipinos opposed his initial plans to run next year. According to one poll, around 60 per cent of them – including a majority of potential voters from Mr Duterte’s home island of Mindanao – believe that his vice presidential bid “violates the intention of the Constitution, which should first be amended before he may run for office again".

They have a point. After the collapse of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, the Philippines had introduced strict provisions to curtail the power of presidency, confining it to a single six-year term. And Mr Duterte’s intention to run has prompted some experts to suggest that it would violate those constitutional restrictions by providing a "back door" to the presidency, especially if an anointed successor were to win the top job.

Mr Duterte seems to have read the writing on the wall. Over the weekend, the president conceded that the “overwhelming sentiment of the Filipinos is that I’m not qualified [to be vice president], and it would be a violation of the constitution".

While announcing his retirement plans, Mr Duterte threw his weight behind the idea of his daughter and Mr Go running on a single ticket. And yet, even this goal is far from an assured success. Latest surveys show Sara Duterte's chances have declined significantly; she is now virtually tied with her two main rivals, Mr Moreno and former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Mr Pacquiao is not far behind either.

To be fair, Sara Duterte is known for her independent streak and a more inclusive, multi-stakeholder approach to governance in contrast to her more authoritarian father. But should she choose to run – which we may not know before November 15, the final deadline for candidates – she will be up against a host of ambitious, charismatic and well-funded rivals who will paint her as her father’s proxy.

In what is likely to be a high-stakes election next year, the presidential daughter will almost certainly stand at the receiving end of all criticisms for her father’s shortcomings.

Published: October 4th 2021, 12:54 PM
Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is a professorial chairholder in geopolitics at Polytechnic University of the Philippines