Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara Duterte may run on a family ticket at 2022 elections. Image: Twitter

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is legally limited to a single six-year term, a constitutional provision aimed at preventing a reversion to an earlier era of entrenched elected dictatorship.

But as Duterte’s term nears its end in mid-2022, and with an eye on potential prosecution for his poor human rights record once out of office, the populist leader has a plan to stay to power: a joint ticket with his daughter Sara on which he runs as her vice president.

Latest opinion surveys show that a long-rumored “Duterte-Duterte” ticket is already in pole position among top contenders for next year’s presidential poll.

With the political opposition in disarray and struggling to coalesce around a charismatic leader, the strongman populist is now openly flirting with the prospect of the first dynastic succession in Philippine history.

Previously, political family members, notably the Aquinos, mother (Corazon) and son (Benigno III), and the Macapagal-Arroyos, father (Diosdado) and daughter (Gloria), rose to Malacanang but none of them in direct succession as Duterte is seeking.

Duterte’s bid has already come under hot fire for potentially violating the spirit and text of the 1987 constitution, which was drafted on the eve of the fall of former rights-abusing strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

Duterte’s apparent plan to circumvent legal term limits has also triggered an unexpected backlash among his allies, as the current ruling establishment teeters on the verge of disintegration ahead of next year’s elections.

Social media users have fired back at the Duterte-Duterte ticket with memes and hashtags mocking the tandem as “DuSa” (Duterte-Sara), which translates to misery and wretchedness in the local Tagalog language.

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

Sara Duterte, the current mayor of Davao City where her father long held the same seat, enjoys a 28% favorability rating, according to the latest Pulse Asia survey conducted between June 7 to 16.

Her father, meanwhile, topped the race among potential vice-presidential candidates with 18% favorability, according to the same poll.

Their combined opinion poll lead has been boosted by strong support in their home island of Mindanao, where they enjoy 35% and 62% favorability, respectively.

After playing coy for months, both Dutertes have recently expressed their willingness to run together at next year’s election.

Last month, the Filipino president openly declared that he is considering the vice-presidency in order to avoid being reduced to a lame-duck president.

“Maybe, to maintain the equilibrium sa lahat (for all), consider me a candidate for the vice-presidency at this time,” Duterte said. “That’s political posturing so they will not treat you badly because I’m on my way out.”

Sara has followed suit after months of denying that she is considering the highest office.

“What is important now is that we know the sentiments of the people and what they really want,” the Davao mayor said during a recent visit to the central metropolis of Cebu, where “Run, Sara, Run” tarpaulins arranged by political allies supposedly reflected growing popular “trust and confidence” in the presidential daughter.

Duterte – who could face prosecution for extrajudicial killings in his controversial drug war as well as retribution from various of his government’s victims ranging from jailed opposition senator Lelia De-Lima to the ABS-CBN television news network he effectively shut down– has a big incentive to stay in office. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics Challenge in Davao City in March 2018. Photo: AFP / Joel Dalumpines

Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court decided to press ahead with formal investigations into killings under Duterte’s drug war which has claimed thousands of lives, particularly among poor Filipinos.

Duterte has been quoted in press reports giving shoot to kill orders to police, though officers involved in killings have almost universally claimed they only shot in self-defense.

Top constitutional experts, meanwhile, have accused the incumbent of abusing the electoral process to cling to power.

Christian Monsod, a prominent lawyer and one of the key framers of the 1987 constitution, has argued that any Duterte run for the vice-presidency would directly violate term limit restrictions.

Former senator and prominent human rights lawyer Rene Saguisag characterized the Duterte-Duterte ticket as “a patent circumvention” of constitutional restrictions.

“A wise maxim from time out of mind is that one may not do indirectly what he cannot do directly. The president knows he cannot run again, so the obvious unconstitutional circumvention,” Saguisag said, raising the prospect of a court challenge to the bid.

The prospect of a Duterte-Duterte ticket has also sparked criticism among the president’s allies, chief among them prize fighter-turned-senator Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, who is known to harbor his own presidential ambitions and once appeared to be Duterte’s approved successor.

Pacquiao, who is the president of the ruling PDP-Laban party, has recently ramped up his criticism of Duterte, accusing the president of soft-pedaling on China’s incursions into Philippine-claimed waters as well as overseeing massive government corruption.

The tiff has driven the president to fire back, accusing Pacquiao of being a “liar” and daring his former ally to name names in connection with the corruption allegation.

Philippine boxing icon Manny Pacquiao poses for photos during a press conference shortly after arriving at the international airport in Manila on January 24, 2019. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

“Go to Congress and start talking,” Duterte told Pacquiao in his weekly public address. “If you will fail to do that, I will campaign against you, because you are not doing your duty. Do it, because if you will not, I will just tell the people, ‘Do not vote for Pacquiao because he is a liar’”, Duterte warned last month.

Not known for backing down from a fight, Pacquiao has punched back at the president by openly accusing top government officials of corruption in their handling of the pandemic.

“Let’s start with the DOH [Department of Health]. Let’s look into the rapid test kits, PPE, masks, and other supplies it procured. Are you ready, Secretary [of DOH]  Francisco Duque, to show the entirety of your spending? Where did the money that we loaned for the pandemic go?,” Pacquiao asked.

In response, Duterte has gone so far as to threaten Pacquiao with tax evasion cases, accusing his former ally of being a “cheat” and “corrupt.” Pro-Duterte factions in the PDP-Laban have also moved to oust Pacquiao, the party’s president, for his alleged “character assassination” of the president.

Infighting among Duterte allies, meanwhile, has opened up the space for formidable contenders, chief among them the youthful and charismatic mayor of Manila Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso.

Moreno, who has consciously steered away from both the Duterte camp and the opposition, represents the most serious challenge to a Duterte-Duterte ticket in 2022, according to recent surveys.

As such Pacquiao is just one among many presidential contenders who are said to be exploring a tandem with the surging Moreno.

Manila Mayor Francisco ‘Isko’ Moreno Domagoso is bidding to stay above the Duterte fray. Photo: Screengrab/CNN

The most recent Pulse Asia survey placed Moreno as the second most preferred candidate for the presidency (14 %) and also second most preferred for the vice-presidency (14%). Other surveys have shown that the Manila mayor is the top preferred candidate online as well as in the northern industrialized regions of Luzon.

Without directly naming the Dutertes, Moreno has decried any plans for dynastic succession at next year’s elections, arguing that political office shouldn’t be passed down like heritage.

“I will not vote for someone who would simply inherit a government post. It’s because a government post is not inherited or merely passed on to another person,” the popular mayor said. “That is a guarantee. I will not vote for it,” he said.