- Sara Duterte is still the nominal front-runner for the presidency, although she disavows any intent to seek the office.
- Her recent ratings decline may be a cause of worry for her campaign and force her to disclose her real intent sooner.
- Manila mayor Francisco Domagoso is the other serious contender; he is in a dead heat with Sara in a four-candidate race and beats her handily head-to-head.
- Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. may emerge as the dark horse for 2022, but this would introduce the greatest pre-election noise and uncertainty for investors.
Candidate registrations for the 2022 national elections will run from 1-8 October but whether Sara Duterte, the president's daughter, will be joining the presidential race may not be fully resolved until 15 November, which is the last day for candidate substitution. Her father, incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, may also file to run for the vice-presidency — as he has been announcing the past two months — but this also may not be the last word on his political plans, since the two are likely to coordinate their final decisions.
Therefore, while next week's candidate registrations will generate speculation and additional data points, the vice-presidential and presidential candidate rosters are unlikely to provide the full and final picture of the race for the country's top two positions until there is a clear sense of the Dutertes' decisions, and any assessment of the actual front-runners for next year is subject to this caveat.
A survey was also released today in Manila by Pulse Asia, which can be considered as one of the two more reliable polling firms to follow for the elections. Difficulties in polling during the pandemic may make Pulse's data less robust compared to previous elections, however. Also, this is a survey representing voting-age adults (18 years and above), and not of the smaller set of registered voters or those intending to vote — and several variables may affect voter mobilization and the campaign, including the course of the pandemic response.
Sara remains the nominal frontrunner, but she has lost significant ground. Large swings among the leading candidates are common early in the presidential race, which also happened during the 2016 elections as public perceptions can shift quickly depending on the news cycle. Therefore, on its own, Sara's most recent drop in the polls should not be seen yet as a strong, structural trend.
The Dutertes are vulnerable
However, Pulse Asia also asked voters for their preferences using more limited sets of presidential candidates. The first had only four names: Sara, Domagoso, Pacquiao and Lacson, while the second featured only Sara and Domagoso. With four candidates, Domagoso and Duterte were in a virtual dead heat, with Pacquiao and Lacson trailing considerably. In fact, a four-way race with Marcos (who was curiously excluded) could hurt Sara more, since there is overlap between their bases. In a head-to-head race, Domagoso beat Sara by a significant margin.
Assuming that Sara is intent on running in 2022, these numbers may cause her to question whether holding off much longer on her plans is wise — which could in turn force her to announce her real intentions well ahead of the November deadline. For one, while she may have an established base of roughly 30% public support due to name recognition and from her father's base, she will still need to duplicate some of his momentum from 2016. This will not be as easy since the Dutertes will be less of a novelty and her narrative has not yet been fully defined. The pandemic may also deprive the campaign of the large rallies that helped her father's trajectory. The surveys seem to indicate that a narrowing field works against Sara since the voters of candidates that drop out seem to gravitate more to her opponents.
Furthermore, Pulse's survey of vice-presidential candidates also has her father clearly trailing Senate President Tito Sotto, which would seem to indicate the potential political miscalculation if the family were to insist on Sara withdrawing in favor of her father's VP run.
A Marcos candidacy would unsettle the business community
The survey numbers also raise the question of whether Marcos, Jr. is the dark horse for 2022. Last week, his New Society Movement (KBL) party nominated him for the presidency, although he has not officially accepted. In 2016, he lost only narrowly to incumbent Vice-President Leonor Robredo, but he has a steady base both geographically and with a still substantial bloc of voters who view his father sympathetically. He may appeal to a conservative base that sees the Marcos era as a time of order and predictability, compared to the raucous politics of today. He will also have more appeal with Duterte voters compared to Domagaso, and may thus draw from Sara's base should she decide not to run. President Duterte has openly attacked all possible contenders except Marcos Jr., which is what drives our belief that a Sara (for president)-Marcos (for vice president) partnership is possible. Marcos and Sara competing for the presidency weakens them both. But for now our assessment is that Marcos will yield to a Sara presidential candidacy.
Finally, Pacquiao and Robredo are unlikely to emerge as strong contenders. Robredo has struggled to break out of her base, and she has said she would not run if this would allow an opposition candidate a better chance of beating Duterte (who could be Domagoso). Pacquaio may be able to self-fund a campaign, but he needs to outperform strongly in the more heavily populated northern half of the country and with middle-income voters. He has neither the personal nor political infrastructure to do so, at least for now, although he and Domagoso are the political outsiders, which played well in 2016. Next to Marcos, a Pacquaio rise would be the possible surprise.
Of the potential leader boards, a strong Marcos candidacy would be polarizing and introduce the greatest uncertainty for the corporate sector. Not only are his political and business links largely unknown, but this would also raise questions about how he would treat major conglomerates that openly supported the anti-Marcos uprising in the 1980s such as the Ayalas and Lopezes. A strong Pacquaio candidacy would follow, due to his repeated populist promises and similarly unknown political and economic ties. Domagoso and Duterte's candidacies would be perceived as generating less uncertainty. The Manila mayor is reportedly receiving support from some established Manila elites. This could reduce the prospects for reform but also means that he would hew to established policymaking. Similarly, Duterte would be seen as less coarse and controversial than her father, and the focus later on would be on her personnel and policy choices, but she would not generate the same uncertainty as Marcos.