Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte in a file photo. Photo: Twitter
Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, eager to shield himself from possible prosecution for rights abuses and Covid-19 mismanagement when his elected tenure ends, is now scrambling for a viable and loyal successor.

In the view of his supporters and allies, a dynastic succession to his politician daughter Sara Duterte would be just the ticket. Or, if she declines to contest, Duterte could run as vice president on a ticket led by his long-time aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go.  

Duterte’s political allies recently launched the “Duterte Parin Movement” (Still Duterte movement), which is clamoring loudly for “six more years” of the populist leader. Although the populist incumbent is constitutionally barred from seeking immediate re-election, it doesn’t mean the Duterte era will end when his term does.  

The spotlight is turning to residential daughter and current mayor of Davao City Sara Duterte, who is leading in early opinion polls more than a year before the next presidential election will be held in mid-2022.

A brazen bid for an unprecedented dynastic political succession, however, runs the risk of exposing the Duterte clan to challenges in their home base of Mindanao, where vicious warlords ruthlessly compete for power. They will also face concerted pushback by both allies and opposition members at the national level.

Should she throw her hat into the ring, the presidential daughter will face formidable challenges from other major political dynasties and allies, including the powerful Marcoses as well as boxer-turned-senator Manny Pacquiao, who are also eying the presidency in 2022.

Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr addresses the crowd on July 1, 2019, in Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila, Philippines. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto / Artur Widak

Throughout the past five years, Duterte repeatedly tried to remove presidential term limits, either through the declaration of nationwide martial law or through constitutional amendments introduced by his congressional allies.

Those power-grabbing moves faced spirited pushback by both the defense and military establishments, which vehemently opposed the imposition of martial law, as well as independent and opposition senators, who are keen to maintain the single-term limit status quo.

Having failed to remove constitutional barriers to his prospective re-election, Duterte has flirted with other options. One model is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s earlier decision to run as a deputy to his long-time ally, Dmitry Medvedev, to circumvent constitutional term limits.

To this end, Duterte has largely relied on his close aide Go, who was elected as a senator in 2019 after heavy political and financial backing from the incumbent. Earlier this year, the Filipino president effectively endorsed his loyal ally.

“This Senator Bong Go, when we were alighting from the plane, he said to me, ’Sir, I would like to ask a favor from you. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth because it’s still too early but I leave it to you to make the announcement,’” Duterte shared in Filipino during a public speech in the Port of Dumaguete in Negros Oriental in March.

“The truth is one thing only: he said I should tell you that he wants to be president,” Duterte added. A week earlier, Duterte openly praised his aide, describing him on one occasion as “president.”

Go himself has denied any ambition for the nation’s highest office, but suggested that he will consider it if Duterte chooses to run as his running mate vice president, a potential tandem that has been formally endorsed by presidential allies in the ruling PDP-Laban Party.

President Rodrigo Duterte (L) with personal assistant Christopher Lawrence ‘Bong’ Go (R). Photo: Philippine Government Handout

The problem, however, is that Go is more of a reliable apparatchik than a charismatic politician. Absent Duterte’s full-throated backing, even the Senate would have been an impossible dream for what many have described as the long-time errand boy to the former provincial mayor-turned-president.  

A recent authoritative survey showed that Duterte’s preferred successor had a dismal favorability rating of only 5% among potential presidential candidates. In contrast, Sara Duterte topped the survey with 27%, followed by the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (13%) and pugilist-turned-politician Manny Pacquiao (11%).

Duterte’s political operators are clearly hedging their bets for potential pathways to keep the president in power. This week, the president’s allies formally launched the “Duterte Parin Movement”, which calls for “six more years” of Duterte rule under Sara.

“Duterte is not just a name but a brand of good governance,” claimed the “movement’s” secretary-general Juniño Padilla. He asserted the Duterte brand is the “gold standard” of Philippine governance and the type of leadership needed amid twin Covid-19 and economic crises.

Sara Duterte, however, has been genuinely reluctant to throw her hat into the ring for apparently several reasons. For one, as the matriarch of the Duterte dynasty in their hometown of Davao, she has been a pillar of stability in Mindanao but still must contend with rivals and challengers in her own backyard.

Leaving their home base for Malacanang, and with her 76-year-old father entering his sunset years, Sara’s departure could leave the whole dynasty vulnerable to machinations of regional warlords eying Davao and Mindanao-wide hegemony.

Moreover, the presidential daughter has not always been on the same page as her father, an important factor should the incumbent run for the vice presidency on her ticket, as some have suggested.

Back in 2010, when she was also serving as Davao mayor, she and her father, then a vice-mayor, struggled in co-ruling Davao, given their generational, policy as well as overall style of governance differences.

Contrary to her instinctive and authoritarian father, Sara tends to rely more on public policy experts and participatory consultation with various stakeholders, according to reports.

On the national level, she would also face a formidable challenge from other prominent dynasties and power centers.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and his daughter Sara Duterte arrive for the opening of the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) Annual Conference 2018 in Boao, south China’s Hainan province on April 10, 2018. Photo: AFP via ChinaOut

While leading in recent surveys, her advantage over former senator Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos as well as other challengers like fellow Mindanaon Pacquiao is far from decisive and could easily wane with a shift in political winds.

Even if she were to pull off a victory, thanks to heavy backing by her incumbent father, Sara runs the risk of confronting the pent-up frustrations with the president, who remains popular for now but has been by any measure a governance disaster during the Covid-19 pandemic.

 “I made a chart where I listed the whys and why nots before I decided that I am not going to run,” said Sara Duterte earlier this year, expressing her genuine reservations about running for the presidency.  

But as the post-presidency legal and political risks against her father mount, Sara’s undeniable momentum in recent opinion surveys could yet cause her to change her mind, if nothing else for the sake of the family.