Sara Duterte appears to have her eye on the presidency after all. Photo: Facebook

MANILA – Sara Duterte has opted to run as a “substitute” candidate for a top national office next year, opening the way for the incumbent Davao City mayor and presidential daughter to seek her father’s job at 2022 elections.

In making the move, Sara Duterte has followed in the footsteps of her father Rodrigo Duterte, who also ran as a “substitute” candidate under controversial circumstances ahead of the 2016 elections he went on to win on a populist ticket.

Up until last week, the prevailing assumption was that she would run as a vice-presidential candidate in tandem with ex-senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr in a grand coalition of the country’s two most influential political dynasties.

But in an about-turn, there are growing indications that Sara Duterte is now eying the presidency for herself, thus setting up a potentially bitter showdown not only with opposition forces but also with the powerful Marcoses, who reportedly feel they have been led astray.

Admitting that he hasn’t had a chance to talk to Sara Duterte following the withdrawal of her candidacy for Davao City mayor this week, Marcos indicated that “we might” still resume discussions ahead of next week’s November 15 deadline for the registration of “substitute” candidates.

But the visibly piqued son of the former Filipino dictator remained defiant, vowing to stay in the race while lashing out at the Dutertes by stating “I entered this race not to play any of these substitution or play with the rules…I entered this race with thoughts that I should run for president. That’s what I’m doing.”

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

Not long ago, Sara Duterte, who has never served in any elected office or prominent position outside of Davao, dismissed speculation she would seek either of the top two offices of the land.

First, she blasted as “wild conjectures” any potential tandem with Marcos in order to outflank her father’s protégé, Senator Christopher Bong Go, who has also eyed making a run at the presidency.

But following her high-profile meeting with Marcos in the central city of Cebu last month, where the pair held seemingly fruitful and cordial talks, the prospect of a united Marcos-Duterte front at next year’s elections seemed all but certain.

Having filed for the presidency last month, the well-resourced Marcos has rapidly consolidated nationwide networks of supporters while gradually rising in opinion surveys.

In contrast, both Sara and her father, Rodrigo Duterte, have suffered declining favorability ratings in various surveys in recent months. This made a Marcos-Duterte tandem, with the much younger and less experienced Sara as the vice-presidential candidate, a more viable compromise.

Up until early November, Sara Duterte effectively confirmed the team-up when she called on her supporters via her Facebook page to stop conducting large-scale caravans for a potential presidential bid, since “a decision was already made public as early as September 10 not to run for President.”

But just as Marcos surged in the polls and solidified his position as the administration’s standard-bearer, he faced mounting opposition and calls for his disqualification.

Earlier this month, a group of activists petitioned the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to cancel Marcos’ certificate of candidacy (CoC) based on his prior criminal record.

Back in 1995, Marcos, whose family has been accused of large-scale embezzlement throughout two decades of his father’s dictatorial rule, was himself convicted of tax evasion by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.

His subsequent appeal failed as the Court of Appeals (CA) upheld the decision two years later, albeit with a few modifications, including the removal of a jail sentence. 

Critics claim that his prior conviction should be grounds for disqualification for elected office since Section 12 of the Omnibus Election Code disqualifies anyone from running for any elected office who has been convicted by final judgment of “any offense for which he has been sentenced to a penalty of more than eighteen months or for a crime involving moral turpitude.”

“Marcos is not eligible to run for any public office as he is, plainly, a convicted criminal. Marcos was convicted by the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City in a July 27, 1995, Decision for his multiple failures to file income tax returns,” the petitioners added.

But legal experts remained skeptical about the prospects of disqualification, especially since Marcos, a former senator and vice-presidential candidate, was allowed to run and hold multiple elected offices in the past.

Prominent lawyer Nilo Divina, dean of law at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), dismissed the petition as “defective in form” since it “offers insufficient legal basis to obtain its desired judgment.”

“It’s ad hominem, or an attack against the character of the respondent, that may weaken the petitioners’ position. It is the law, always, that matters,” Divina added, commenting on the nature of the 57-page petition for Marcos’ disqualification.

Interestingly, key opposition leaders refused to back the petition, likely because Marcos’ presence on the ballot will actually help them to mobilize their support base.

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo attends a press conference at her office in Manila on November 14, 2019. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

“For me, it doesn’t make sense.  If we wanted to have Marcos disqualified, we should have done that during our [vice-presidential] race in 2016,” said Vice President Leonor “Leni” Robredo, whose own bid for the presidency is anchored in her vow to prevent the return of the Marcoses to Malacanang Palace. 

“And also, if the purpose of the disqualification case is to remove him from this contest, I think that’s unnecessary.  We fought in the 2016 polls, and we won without a disqualification petition,” she added.

But it was the Dutertes, having packed the COMELEC with cronies and loyalists, who were quick to seize the opportunity to outmaneuver the Marcoses.

Rumors that the Dutertes were threatening Marcos from behind the scenes with potential disqualification unless he slides down to the vice-presidency have swirled on social media as signs of rifts between the two families have reemerged.

As popular momentum began to shift against Marcos, Sara Duterte’s supporters began sending signals that she is now interested in the highest office. 

“This afternoon, I withdrew my candidacy for mayor of Davao City. Vice Mayor Baste will substitute for me. This is all for now. Thank you very much,” she announced earlier this week amid an emotional farewell from her supporters in the southern city.

Within days, she perfunctorily resigned from the regional, Mindanao-based party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP), which she co-founded back in 2019, to join the national Lakas-CMD party, which is led by key Duterte ally and former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as well as Marcos’ relative, House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez.

Just weeks earlier, Romualdez had co-hosted the Marcos-Duterte meeting in Cebu, while Arroyo has reportedly tried to convince both dynasties to form a united front at next year’s elections. Per COMELEC rules, Sara Duterte should join a national party in order to qualify as a substitute candidate for a national office.

“The officials and members of Lakas-CMD are elated to welcome Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte as a new member of our party,” Romualdez said, praising Sara Duterte as “a very promising leader and a tremendous asset to the Lakas-CMD.”

It didn’t take long for Albay Congressman Joey Salceda, a perennial political insider and shrewd politician, to announce that Sara Duterte is actually aiming to run as a presidential candidate, replacing Lakas-CMD’s executive director Anna Capela Velasco, who earlier filed his candidacy for the highest office.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara. Photo: AFP

To add political insult to injury, Sara Duterte’s melodramatic admission as the standard-bearer of the Arroyo-led party took place on the sidelines of a star-studded wedding party, which was also attended by Bongbong Marcos.

“I know what my plan is. We will continue my plan. That is what we are doing,” said Marcos on the sidelines of the wedding, as it increasingly became clear that Sara will be a potential rival, not ally, in next year’s elections.

“Then she will run. What can I say,” lamented Marcos. “Examine my situation. I have nowhere else to go. I cannot go anywhere. I will not change parties,” the former senator amid an increasingly contentious and unpredictable race.