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July 2, 2021

Asia

PHILIPPINES: Duterte looks first to his succession plans, not legacy

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 4 mins)
  • At a press conference yesterday, President Rodrigo Duterte said he should be considered as a candidate for the vice-presidency in 2022.
  • The statement is likely a bluff to create political noise that keeps him relevant through the next few months.
  • For Duterte and many of his allies, the stakes in next year’s election are high, because of the legal risks from his controversial anti-drug war.

On 1 July, President Rodrigo Duterte announced his intention to seek the vice- presidency in next year’s May general elections. Since such an effort would effectively put him one step away from the presidency, it raises the question of whether his possible candidacy or victory would be legal, given that Philippine presidents are supposed to be limited to a single term.

However, the Constitution’s specific wording is that the president “shall not be eligible for any reelection,” which does not preclude succession to the office. Therefore, while a Duterte vice-presidential bid would seem to be an attempt to circumvent the spirit of the constitutional ban, a legal challenge to it would likely fail. In addition, Duterte’s respect for institutional constraints — express or implied — has always been suspect. Therefore, that he may be contemplating a vice-presidential run cannot be fully discounted.

However, his statement yesterday was likely more of a bluff to create political noise. Duterte and his closest allies are mindful that they need to properly manage his succession, possibly more than any recent president, due to possibility that an unfriendly successor could investigate his administration, especially on the conduct of its violent drug war. And holding himself up as a potential vice-presidential candidate helps in two ways:

First, floating the vice-presidential idea keeps him relevant, and his public base engaged both with him and his chosen successor. Election rules fix the nomination period for 1-8 October, but parties can still substitute candidates up to December, meaning that whoever might be on the May ballot could be the subject of speculation until well into the fourth quarter. After all, the precedent is Duterte — he was not his party’s original candidate in 2016 and was only substituted in several weeks after the formal October nomination deadline ended.

Second, by sustaining rumors that he could be running again, Duterte may be wanting to upset budding political alliances that could eventually challenge his preferred successor, who for now looks to be his daughter and Davao City mayor Sara Duterte (who has 27% voter support in the most recent presidential poll). She is the early favorite, leading in the most recent surveys and has a significant following in both the upper- and lower-income classes. Posters and banners imploring her to run are visible both on the streets and in social media, while a grassroots recruitment campaign for her organization is also taking place, indicating a well-funded effort that portends a candidacy for national office.

Other names that are currently polling at a high enough rate to be considered potential presidential contenders are: Senator Manny Pacquiao, the boxer (11%); Manila city mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso (12%); Senator Grace Poe (12%), who came in second in 2016; and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (13%), the son of the former autocrat. None have openly declared an intention to run, but Pacquiao is clearly testing the waters. He and Duterte have been in a weeks-long word war even though they belong to the same PDP-Laban party. Thus, by holding out the possibility that he could become a vice-presidential candidate, Duterte could be complicating these other candidates’ alliance-building efforts as they fundraise and weigh the best combinations for their presidential and vice-presidential slates.

But the reason why Duterte may publicly flirt with a vice-presidential run but in the end avoid it is that it may actually decrease his ticket’s chances of winning. There are two possible presidential running mates for Duterte’s possible VP bid: his daughter Sara or, as also rumored, his top factotum, Senator Bong Go. However, all three of them are from the same province of Davao, which makes their slate vulnerable if geographic representation or the over-concentration of political positions in one family or bloc becomes a concern among voters. President Duterte could offset this by running as the vice-presidential candidate of Marcos, Jr., who comes from the northern Ilocos region, and whose family name still apparently has weight with a substantial number of voters. But it is unlikely that the president would agree to such a configuration while Sara remains a viable presidential candidate.

Duterte will likely spend the next few months with his own political maneuvers, by continuing to attack Pacquiao initially to either end Pacquiao’s presidential aspirations or to remove him from the party, and then focusing early in the fourth quarter on whoever emerges as the likeliest threat to his succession plans.