Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter running mate Sara Duterte in a file photo. Image: Twitter

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After playing coy for months, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently declared that he is considering running for vice-president at elections in mid-2022 in order to avoid being reduced to a lame-duck president. Leading the ticket, as widely rumored, could be none other than his daughter, Sara Duterte, the current mayor of Davao City.
 
Asia Times’ contributor Jason Castaneda reported last week that with the Philippine 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 direct succession in the country’s history.
 
Duterte, he says, has big incentives to stay in office, including fear of prosecution for extrajudicial killings in his controversial drug war. With opinion surveys showing a long-rumored “Duterte-Duterte” ticket already in pole position, Castaneda shared his thoughts on the firebrand leader’s potential bid to sidestep the nation’s single-term limit for presidents.
 
Why is Duterte seeking the vice-presidency in 2022?
 
There are two major reasons why the incumbent populist wants to perpetuate himself in power by all means necessary. First, having failed at ramming through a controversial and highly suspect new proposed constitution, thanks to widespread public skepticism and resistance by more independent-leaning senators with their own personal ambitions, Duterte is looking for alternative ways to stick around.
 
Here is a man, who, after all, has no appreciation for legal term limits, having been the supremo of the southern city of Davao for decades, either directly or through proxies, namely his daughter, Sara. So when he ran for the presidency, I believe he had plans of staying in power for as long as he felt necessary, not only for himself but also for the country.

Duterte genuinely believes that Philippine democratic institutions are so broken that only a supposedly decisive and uncompromising authoritarian figure like himself can save it from apocalypse.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in campaign mode in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

The way he put it in 2016 elections was this: If he doesn’t win, the country will become another “narco-state”, but obviously he was speaking in more general terms about the fragility of the Philippine political system, which was exposed by his very ascent to power and, subsequently, “shock and awe” devastation of fragile democratic institutions.
 
The second, and increasingly urgent reason, is even more straightforward: He faces the prospect of political persecution by all the major players he alienated, both within and without, and, even more crucially, reckoning for his mass atrocities throughout the years of a scorched-earth drug war.
 
The International Criminal Court, the US Congress, and, should an opposition figure win, the malleable domestic courts will likely all go after him once he is out of power. And for Duterte, his fear is that they might not only go after him but also his entire dynasty, with many warlords and rivals waiting for their opportunity to strike in the vicious politics on the southern island of Mindanao.
 
Is a Duterte-Duterte ticket even legal under Philippine law governing term limits for the president?
 
Most constitutional experts, and even some of his allies, maintain that any run for the vice-presidency, which would put him in a position to ascend to the presidency at any moment, clearly and directly violates the spirit and text of the 1987 constitution, which expressly sought to prevent another elected dictatorship as we as saw under Ferdinand Marcos.

So, it’s possible that some critics or civil society groups will try to challenge his run at the Commission on Elections, packed by Duterte appointees, and all the way to the Supreme Court, also packed with Duterte appointees, if necessary.

Duterte, himself a lawyer, just happens to be so shameless and confident that he is calculating, perhaps correctly, that no court or electoral body would dare to disqualify him, given how they are all dominated by allies or subservient magistrates. After all, there is also nothing in the constitution that expressly proscribes an incumbent president seeking demotion by running for the vice-presidency.
 
But you don’t need to be a constitutional lawyer to understand the implication of his potential vice-presidency and how it would allow Duterte to circumvent term limits, namely only a six-year term in office ever, should a proxy become the president. 
 
Why is the Duterte-Duterte ticket with his daughter Sara already leading in opinion polls?
 
There are three factors to keep in mind. First of all, Duterte is popular. Thus many who would vote for his daughter would, more or less, be voting for another term in office for him. So Sara is a proxy vote. And this is very clear in terms of “Solid South” Mindanao support for the pair, which seems to be purely tribal-regionalism rather than performance-based.
 
Second, both opposition and independents are yet to declare their candidacy, never mind a full ticket. The Dutertes are clearly enjoying first-movers advantage, not to mention utilizing state funds and resources from who knows where to put up billboards and tarpaulins as well as organize “Duterte-Duterte” organizations all across the country. They have the resources and machinery in place.

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

And third, the “lead” is actually not as formidable as it looks, especially when compared to past early favorites such as former vice-president Jejomar Binay in the 2016 elections. Given how it’s too early in the race, the Duterte tandem may have exposed itself to concerted pushback by all rivals, including some allies, by their premature and shameless campaigning amid a raging pandemic and widespread economic immiseration

According to the latest Pulse Asia survey, Duterte is virtually tied with the charismatic mayor of Manila Francisco “Isko” Moreno for the vice-presidency, who happens to also be second behind the presidential daughter for the top position. Online surveys, meanwhile, show that Moreno and boxer-senator Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquaio, a former-ally-turned-rival to Duterte, are the top contenders. So the race is far from definitive.
 
Would Sara Duterte make a viable president of the Philippines?
 
Let’s be honest, the only reason she is even considered for the presidency, given her dearth of experience in national politics, is because she is the daughter of the popular incumbent. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have been in contention at all.
 
Had Duterte not won the 2016 elections, I doubt she would have even had a shot at the Senate, which is nationally contested. So this is going to be more about proxy voting for the father rather than an affirmation of her qualifications, or lack thereof.
 
Nonetheless, those who are familiar with Davao politics will always tell you that she is a far better version of her father. Sara is known for her emphasis on multi-stakeholder consultations, relative respect for evidence-based public policy and academic experts, and her more cosmopolitan outlook in governance and politics – at least compared to her Beijing-loving, West-hating father, who largely rules by instinct rather than forethought.