President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara. Photo: AFP / Richard Madelo

MANILA – With 2022 elections on the horizon, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruling coalition is in disarray as competing factions unabashedly jockey for position to take Malacañang Palace.

In the biggest plot twist, President Duterte and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, earlier slated to run as a daughter-father Duterte-Duterte duo, have apparently parted political ways and could now go head-to-head on competing tickets.   

The ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) party is now split between supporters of the president, who have endorsed Duterte’s controversial vice-presidential bid next year, which will effectively allow him to elude constitutional term limits, and its “original” members led by boxer-turned-politician Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, who is eying the presidency himself. 

Shortly before Pacquiao’s return to Manila following his latest professional bout in Las Vegas, his supporters pressed ahead with a plot to unseat Duterte from the ruling party’s leadership. At the same time, Sara Duterte openly lashed out at her father’s plans to ditch her and run instead with his long-time aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go.

Meanwhile, sensing an opportunity in discord, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the sole son of the former Filipino dictator who is now also eying the presidency, is bidding to exploit ruling coalition divisions by reaching out to opposed sides within Duterte’s party and family.

Duterte’s ruling party is cracking up. PDP-Laban executive director Ron Munsayac told the media that Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel, the son of a party co-founder and former senate president under Duterte, has taken over the party leadership, ousting Duterte and his top allies from his own party.

Pimentel, formerly a staunch Duterte ally who also hails from the southern island of Mindanao, quickly hailed the purge.

“They really know nothing about our party,” he lashed out at the president and his allies, claiming they “are confused” and “do not know who their presidential candidate is because their prospects have declined their offer.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) raises the arm of his executive assistant Bong Go, after filing his senatorial candidacy, Manila, October 15, 2018. Photo: Presidential Palace

Pimentel publicly criticized the pro-Duterte faction as subverting the party by “turn[ing] the process upside down and now they already have a vice presidential candidate, even before choosing a presidential candidate.”

The newly declared party chairman warned, “It is not our party that is make-or-break in the elections next year. It’s our country that’s make-or-break. The future of our nation is at stake. That is how important the next election is.”

Just months earlier, Pacquiao was ousted from his chairmanship of the ruling party after openly confronting Duterte and his allies amid an ugly row over who should be PDP-Laban’s standard-bearer at next year’s presidential election.

The boxing sensation enraged the president when he publicly criticized his government’s pro-China policy and exposed massive corruption scandals within the government.

Now, Pacquaio’s allies, led by Pimentel, seem to be back on top of the fractious party, the electoral prospects of which are in growing doubt. Soon after the purge, the Duterte faction shot back, dismissing the whole party reshuffle as “comedy” with no legal binding.

In a statement, Melvin Matibag, the secretary-general of the pro-Duterte PDP-Laban faction, maintained that newly-declared party chairman “Pimentel has no position” and that he “is irrelevant and he does not represent the party.”

He dismissed the “original” members’ faction as a coterie of “pretenders” and “attention seekers”, and declared that “President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is the PDP-Laban party chairman. He remains to be so and will continue to be so.”

Meanwhile, Sara Duterte, who has led various opinion surveys on next year’s presidential election, is revving up her campaign in earnest across the country, seen in proliferating billboards and election materials.

President Duterte seems intent on staying in power via a proxy, namely his long-time aide Bong Go, rather than running under his relatively independent-minded daughter, who has established parallel parties and political coalitions over the past few years, most prominently the Mindanao-based but nationally oriented Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP).

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

In effect, Sara Duterte has undercut her own father’s ruling party and is now bidding for the presidency on her own terms, setting the stage for a potential “Duterte vs Duterte” showdown next year.

Last week, the presidential daughter released a tough-worded public statement in which she exposed her father’s preference for separately running in tandem with his protégé, Go.

“The President, very recently, personally confirmed to me that he will run for vice president and Senator Go as president. It was not a pleasant event,” complained Sara Duterte, who called on her father to “own up publicly to their decision to run as a tandem.”

“I was left with two letters endorsed to me by the president for consideration — one note explained why I should endorse the Go-Duterte tandem, and the other suggested that I take Senator Go as my vice president,” she added, revealing sudden acute tensions within the First Family.

Sara Duterte went on to criticize her father’s political intrigues, calling on the Dutetre-Go tandem to be honest about what “they can offer to our country and how they can help our fellow Filipinos.”

“I respectfully advise them to stop talking about me and make me the reason for them running or not running,” the presidential daughter added, emphasizing that she prefers meticulous, long-term planning rather than her father’s penchant for fickle-minded, 11th-hour decision-making.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque quickly denied any rifts within the ruling coalition as well as First Family, maintaining that “Only one Duterte can run in 2022.”

Malacanang instead projected unity, with Duterte reportedly stating, “Should Sara decide to run, Bong Go is out. For my part, out of delicadeza, I’m out if she runs because we can’t both join [the elections].” 

Go, who has lagged in opinion surveys but remains the president’s most preferred successor, was also adamant that there are no tensions within the ruling coalition.

“Mayor Sara and I have spoken. We have no issue with one another,” Duterte’s protégé added, professing his loyalty to the Duterte dynasty by claiming his “love for the father is the same love I have for the children. President Duterte knows that.”

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

True to form, the Marcos clan is seeking to exploit coalition divisions. Shortly after the First Family spat and new purges in the PDP-Laban party, Senator Maria Imelda “Imee” Marcos announced that her brother, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, is in talks with competing factions of the ruling party.

“Many parties are talking to him, of course…There is also HNP; we were supported by Sara [Duterte] even though that party is only a regional party,” said the senator and de facto spokesman of the Marcos dynasty.

A former senator, Bongbong Marcos narrowly lost the vice presidential race in 2016, an outcome that he legally contested at the Supreme Court without much success while maintaining that he was cheated out of the second-highest office in the country.

Marcos, who has consistently been among the top contenders for the presidency in recent surveys, clearly has his eye on the prize as the election season approaches.

Yet there are indications that the son of the former dictator might opt to run as Sara Duterte’s vice presidential candidate to head off another potential losing campaign.

“Political wisdom says that if you think of the numbers, it looks good, like a really solid tandem,” Imee Marcos said in a recent interview, admitting that although “[t]hings are still volatile” her brother would “be honored to be the vice president or the tandem partner of Mayor Sara.”

“She’s her own mind. Well, clearly she is not a completely obedient daughter. And perhaps that’s why I share it with her. There are some rebel kids here,” Marcos added, setting the stage for a potential showdown between Duterte-Marcos and Duterte-Go tickets in 2022.