March 12, 2021

Asia

PHILIPPINES: All the noise that’s fit to print

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 5 mins)
  • Speculation about the possible administration nominee to succeed President Rodrigo Duterte has increased, including his daughter, Sara, and top aide, Senator Lawrence Go.
  • Funding, shifting survey numbers and alliance building make it difficult to disregard the names being mentioned, but also mean that any forecast today has a wide margin of error.
  • Duterte running for the vice-presidency seems implausible, but not impossible.
  • A Duterte winning either of the country’s top two positions next year cannot be discounted.

The elections are still 14 months away and the filing of candidacies will only commence in October. Over the past few days, however, there has been a substantial amount of noise from the administration coalition on the potential successor to President Rodrigo Duterte, specifically:

  • Duterte hinted that his top aide, Senator Lawrence Go, would run for president in 2022. Go dismissed this as a joke by the president and said he would only seek the post if Duterte agreed to be his vice-presidential running mate.
  • Consequently, several members of the PDP-Laban, Duterte’s party, have signed a manifesto asking Duterte to run for the vice-presidency, as partner to Go.
  • Senator Manuel Pacquiao Jr., the boxer, this week released a professionally shot music video highlighting his connections to the masses and his efforts to help them. It was a thinly veiled campaign message that further amplified speculation that he could contend for either of the country’s top two positions next year.
  • Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, issued a message acknowledging the calls from his supporters for her to also run for president, after banners had been put up in key metropolitan cities urging her to do so. Instead, she asked these unidentified supporters to redirect their efforts to helping the country – without denying whether she aspires for higher office. There are two factions in the administration, one pushing for Go and other for Sara, but the two will yield to Duterte’s decision.

None of the names listed above can be dismissed yet, and others often discussed in the same context locally include Grace Poe (senator and 2016 presidential candidate), Isko Moreno (mayor of the city of Manila), Ramon Ang (CEO, San Miguel Corporation), Panfilo Lacson (senator and former national police chief), Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (son of the former autocrat) and Leonor Robredo (vice president). A group led by a former justice of the Supreme Court and with strong ties to the business community and the anti-Duterte civil society is planning to draft its own candidate, so there may still be more additions to the list above.

But the path to October will be filled with compromises, withdrawals, false starts and non-starters, For all the names mentioned in the note, the noise is only beginning.

Is there signal in the noise?

The Philippines is a multi-party system where there is no nomination threshold, other than a minimal evaluation by the commission on elections (Comelec), and no second-round runoff. Therefore, any candidate who the polls show has around 10% public support heading into the second quarter is considered a possible candidate and could attract funding, on the assumption that an eventual winner may need only around 30% of the vote to win in a multi-candidate race. Based on surveys conducted in December in terms of voter support, this would be Sara Duterte (26%), Marcos (14%), Poe (14%), Moreno (12%) and Pacquiao (10%). On the outside are Robredo (8%), Lacson (4%) and Go (4%).

Given these numbers, Go may therefore be a feint (or a difficult candidate to elevate, which gives rise to the Rodrigo-Duterte-as-vice-presidential-candidate rumors). Robredo seems disinterested and may find it difficult to raise funds, while Lacson has a similar hill to climb, although he has many supporters among the ethnic Chinese community.

Therefore, Sara Duterte’s disavowal should not be taken at face value. And Pacquiao’s video is clearly an early jab. All the others were not involved in this week’s noise, so the next two months should be watched for their signals.

Is Rodrigo Duterte as vice-presidential candidate a possibility?

Duterte and his key allies do not view institutional precedent or tradition as limiting factors. With former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo having won a congressional seat immediately after her presidential term, Duterte will not see running for vice-president as politically or institutionally infeasible or improper. And Duterte would have significant incentives for doing so, especially if there would be a chance of Poe, Robredo, or an independent candidate winning, as this might open a path to an investigation of his government’s violent anti-drug war.

The major unknown is whether the two Dutertes, either the father as a VP candidate or daughter in a presidential race, are overestimating their chances to pull in numbers beyond their core base, or whether a candidate with an alternative narrative could win. This is the reason Pacquiao needs to be watched closely. He has the name recognition, money and strong allies in other geographic areas. His video’s key theme was about Filipinos rising from poverty and the Covid-19 pandemic, which could be the narrative that supplants Duterte’s war on drugs and battle against the economic elite and oligarchs. As we mentioned in a previous note, the pandemic could undo Duterte’s succession plans because Philippine elections are determined by narratives or organization, not the candidate’s platforms. Finally, Pacquiao — and this would also be the aspiration of all the other candidates not surnamed Go or Duterte — could pull in undecided voters, those not wanting a continuation of the family or the weak Duterte supporters, which is a substantial percentage of the electorate and could thus be the swing vote.

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