Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. addresses the crowd during his mother, Imelda R Marcos' 90th birthday celebration, July 1, 2019, in the Open Air Auditorium at Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila, Philippines. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Artur Widak

MANILA – Desperate to hold onto power and avoid culpability for human rights violations, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown his long-time aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, into the country’s wild and wooly presidential election race.

Over the weekend, Duterte failed to pressure his daughter, Sara, who is running as a vice-presidential candidate, into seeking the top office next year by threatening to run for vice president himself.

But the increasingly desperate Filipino president, who has seen his approval ratings crash by double-digits in recent months, ultimately shunned a “Duterte vs Duterte” showdown by vying instead for the less competitive senatorial race, where up to 12 seats will be up for grabs.

The ultimate winner of the days-long family drama is Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of a former dictator who has now solidified his position as the clear frontrunner to succeed Duterte next year. Latest surveys show that Marcos could corner up to half of the total votes if Sara Duterte is absent from the race.

But with the shadow of disqualification hanging over the Marcos presidential bid, thanks to the former senator’s past tax evasion conviction, Duterte might still have a few tricks up his sleeve, however. All indications suggest that the Filipino populist is in no mood to share power, even with his erstwhile allies, the Marcoses.

On Monday, supporters of Davao City Mayor Sara “Inday” Duterte desperately waited until 5 pm, the deadline for filing of “substitute” candidacies, hoping the presidential daughter would reconsider her electoral plans.

Days earlier, Sara Duterte’s camp raised speculation of a potential presidential run, which would have compromised an earlier agreement to run in tandem with Marcos. But an enraged and defiant Marcos held his ground, vowing to stay in the race no matter what the Dutertes decide.

Ultimately, major powerbrokers such as former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, an ally of both Marcoses and Dutertes, convinced her against challenging the Marcoses, which would potentially trigger a major conflict and risk splitting the pro-administration votes in favor of the liberal opposition.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara Duterte. Image: Twitter

Over the weekend, a visibly deflated Sara Duterte released a statement where she tried to appease her supporters’ “relentless call” for her to run for president in 2022.  

“I have thousands of supporters who cried last October 8. And I cannot find it in my heart to make them cry again on November 15. After the deadline, the offer to run for vice president became an opportunity to meet you halfway,” she said, making it clear that a compromise with the Marcoses is her preferred path.

However, the decision enraged her presidential father, who openly accused the Marcoses of coaxing her daughter into submission.

“I’m sure the decision of Sara … was [really] a decision of Bongbong [Marcos],” Duterte complained in an interview with a blogger associated with Bong Go.

“I was puzzled, I said, she was number one in the surveys, so why did she consent to running only for the vice presidency. Why would you run for vice president when you know you are leading?,” Duterte asked, referring to her daughter’s top showing in various surveys.

The Filipino populist upped the ante by threatening Marcos, who he described as “pro-communist”, amid a spate of extrajudicial killings against “red-tagged” activists in recent years.

“The candidacy of Marcos, I’ll tell the reason why I do not support him and why—like Leni, they are pro—that is what I am afraid of. They are pro-communists,” he blurted out, lumping Marcos with opposition leader and presidential candidate Leni Robredo.

Eager to avoid any clash with the Filipino president, the Arroyo-led Lakas-CMD party claimed that the former Filipino president had no role to play in the Bongbong-Sara compromise.

“The idea of her running as vice president did not originate from Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. There was no meeting, planned or canceled, between former president Arroyo and Mayor Duterte in Balesin,” the Lakas-CMD said in a statement, aiming to de-escalate tensions with the president.

Boosted by a big surge in surveys, and having consolidated a nationwide network of supporters, Marcos remained unfazed.

In a recent Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey, which removed Sara from the list of presidential contenders, the son of the former dictator secured as many as 47% of the votes, making him a clear frontrunner to succeed Duterte. At a distant second is vice president Leni Robredo with 18% of the votes.

Christopher Bong Go before testifying at a Senate Blue Ribbon on a frigate procurement controversy, February 8, 2018. Photo: Twitter

But Duterte’s aide, Bong Go, who has consistently fared poorly in all polls, wasn’t even included in the SWS survey. Nevertheless, the Filipino president remains confident about keeping power within his own family.

Although surging in surveys, Marcos faces a potential disqualification over his tax evasion conviction back in 1995. His family, including former First Lady Imelda Marcos, have faced charges of rampant corruption over the years.

Thanks to loopholes in the law and what some see as politically compromised judicial institutions, not a single Marcos has ended up in jail despite repeated convictions. But old charges could be revisited as Marcos inches closer to reclaiming the presidency for his family.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is set to hear a petition filed by human rights activists to cancel Marcos’ certificate of candidacy (COC).

Some analysts believe that Marcos’ potential disqualification is the reason why Duterte preferred one of his anointed successors to remain in the race.

“The way I look at it, it’s possible that the administration is devising a backup plan or a failsafe plan just in case the disqualification case against Senator Bongbong Marcos prospers,” local professor Froilan Calilung told the ABS-CBN News.

“If the disqualification case moves forward, at least the administration has options, Senator Bong Go and President Duterte can take the cudgels,” he continued.

More conspiratorial minds, however, believe that Duterte may pressure the Comelec, which is packed by presidential appointees, to disqualify the Marcoses. This would pave the way for either his aide, Go, or daughter, Sara, to fill in the vacuum.

Meanwhile, by running for the senate, Duterte is hoping to shield himself from potential political backlash or legal retribution by domestic or international courts over his abysmal human rights record highlighted by his scorched earth drug war.

But should Duterte conspire against a resurgent Marcos, he risks making his most powerful enemy yet, a potentially suicidal move as the populist president enters his final months in office with declining popularity and quickly defecting allies.