Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holding a vial of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine during a ceremony at a military airbase in Manila shortly after the vaccines arrived. Photo: AFP / King Rodriques

MANILA – With the Philippines again the Covid-19 epicenter of Southeast Asia, and politics heating up ahead of next year’s presidential elections, President Rodrigo Duterte is increasingly isolated and under fire including from his own politically ambitious daughter.

Philippine Secretary of Health Francisco Duque III, a top Duterte ally, is now under scrutiny for yet another corruption scandal, this time the purchase of 8.67 billion pesos (US$180 million) worth of allegedly overpriced Covid-19 personal protective equipment (PPE).

In response to a days-long senate inquiry over the anomalous acquisition, which involved a notorious mainland Chinese advisor to Duterte as well as a black-listed Taiwan-based company, the president again stood by his allies.

Instead of welcoming a thorough investigation into the accusation, all the more incendiary amid widespread Covid-related economic decline and human suffering, Duterte lashed out at the inquiring senators, even lambasting one as a “Nazi interrogator.”

Senators shot back at the embattled president, claiming he and his allies are in “panic mode” amid a flurry of corruption scandals as well as brewing public discontent over his reputed mismanagement of the pandemic.

Despite a record-high surge in Covid-19 cases, the Filipino president pressed ahead with the ruling party PDP-Laban’s national convention, where he was endorsed as a vice-presidential candidate in 2022 elections in tandem with long-time aide Senator Christopher “Bong” Go.

Presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, who has been leading surveys of potential presidential contenders, publicly criticized the event, warning that her father is on his own and that “I will not share my light this time.”

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

Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, another top contender, also publicly chastised the president for mismanaging the crisis while warning of a political showdown ahead of next year’s elections.

Earlier this week, the Philippine Department of Health (DOH) reported 22,415 confirmed cases, the highest daily caseload on record.

With a positivity rate of 28.8%, way above the 5% recommended standard by the World Health Organization, the actual numbers on the ground are expected to be significantly higher than the official tally.

The troubling viral surge, largely driven by the new Delta variant, has forced the government to postpone a planned relaxation of lockdowns in major cities, further hampering economic recovery in the Southeast Asian country.

Multiple corruption scandals hounding the administration, most especially in relevant agencies such as the DOH, have arguably exacerbated the ongoing crisis.

In the latest scandal, the government’s Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) purchased large amounts of PPEs from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp under highly suspicious circumstances, according to the senate.

Investigations by both legislators and independent analysts show that there was no public bidding, local producers providing affordable options were deliberately excluded, and that the Taiwan-listed company not only lacked sufficient operating finances and proven production capacity but that it is also headed by several black-listed businessmen, one of whom is currently on the run.

The deal was reportedly brokered by a notorious mainland Chinese businessman, Michael Yang, a former “economic advisor” to Duterte with widely alleged ties to crime groups. Both Yang and top Pharmally officials are facing warrants of arrest for ignoring subpoenas to testify at the senate investigations. 

“It was the corporation that made the bid so there was no need to scrutinize the [persons] behind the corporation,” said presidential spokesperson Harry Roque in an attempt to downplay what appear to be anomalous purchases. 

Senators, however, were quick to question the government’s explanations.

Motorists queueing up to cross from nearby Rizal province into Metro Manila, at a provincial border checkpoint in Quezon City, suburban Manila, August 6, 2021. Photo: Ted Aljibe / AFP

“This company has only 625,000 pesos [in operating finances], how did it, in heaven’s name, generate and was able to enter into contract supply agreements worth 8.67 billion pesos?” Senate Minority Leader Drilon asked, raising concerns over the integrity of the bidding procedure.

Risa Hontiveros, another leading opposition senator, questioned the involvement of numerous “shady” figures in the contract that have “numerous red flags planted on them” while reminding Duterte of his earlier promise not to tolerate “even a whiff of corruption” in his government.

Duterte defended the deal as necessary to expedite PPE acquisitions amid a national emergency. He also insinuated the corruption claims aim ultimately to undermine his bid at next year’s election, which critics say is being orchestrated to dodge constitutional term limits.  

“They’re all talk. They just want to be prominent because it’s election already. That is why I ask the people, don’t re-elect these senators because they will just keep on talking and showing off,” Duterte said in dismissing the investigation as a charade and grandstanding by self-interested politicians.

Yet some critics have gone so far as to speculate that Duterte may be personally benefiting from the latest Covid-related corruption schemes specifically to build up a war chest ahead of next year’s elections.

“[His] insulting rebuke only shows that he and Senator Bong Go are one and the same, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. They even probably have a joint bank account,” said Senator Panfilo Lacson, who vowed that the Senate “will not flinch on this one.”

“It is not difficult to think that he is in panic mode and is attempting, as he has already done earlier, to discourage the Senate from pursuing our investigation in the highly anomalous procurement of overpriced medical supplies,” the senator said.

He accused the president of committing an “abominable crime against the Filipino people who continue to suffer amid the pandemic will be exposed and charged in court at the proper time.”

In tandem with Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Lacson launched his campaign for the presidency this week, vowing to bring a corruption-free and competent government to power.

The bigger political event, however, was the national convention of PDP-Laban, where Duterte and his protégé, Go were officially endorsed as the ruling party’s standard-bearers in next year’s elections.

Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go (L) listens to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) during a meeting with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID)at Malacanang Palace in Manila, August 25, 2021. Photo: Presidential Photo Division via AFP / King Rodrigues

The 76-year-old Filipino president underscored the importance of the event by personally attending the convention in San Fernando, a city located north of the capital Manila.

Duterte warmly welcomed the endorsement as a chance for him “to continue serving the Filipino people and help lead the entire nation toward greater progress.”

“Do you know why I’ll be running for the vice presidency? Is it ambition? Maybe. But is it really a sense of love of country? Yes…I want to see the continuity of my efforts even though I may not be the one giving the direction? Maybe I can just help,” the president told his supporters in the increasingly fractious ruling party.

A rival faction of PDP-Laban is expected to endorse boxer-turned-senator Emmanuel “Manny’ Pacquiao as its standard-bearer at next year’s polls.

Sara Dutetre was visibly displeased with the development, despite Go’s public refusal of his candidacy for the presidency in deference to the presidential daughter.

“I am not running for a national position as we both agreed only one of us would run for a national position in 2022,” she declared, signaling that her own regional party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP), will not be supporting her father’s decision.

Political observers, however, believe that the Dutertes will seek one way or another to keep the Malacañang within the family due to shared fears of political persecution, if not criminal proceedings, for their alleged abuse of power once out of power.  

Manila Mayor Isko Moreno. Photo: Screengrab

The Dutertes’ top rival, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who has been surging in both presidential and vice-presidential surveys, joined in the chorus of criticisms against the Filipino president.

“Your bellies are so big, yet you’re still not scrambling. When will you be satiated by power? When will you wake up to the truth?,” declared the Manila mayor while accusing the president and his allies of massive corruption and incompetence amid a raging pandemic.

“I am asking you, Mr President, remove the people who don’t have compassion for their fellow human being. Let’s do a clear accounting. Anyway, I’ll face you in October,” he said, in his clearest expression yet of his intent to run for the presidency and challenge the Dutertes next year.