Celebrity-obsessed PHL politics to test Duterte’s cling to power

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Philippines President Rodrigo R. Duterte arrives with daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio to attend the enthronement ceremony of Japan’s Emperor Naruhito in Tokyo, Japan Oct. 22, 2019. — REUTERS/FILE PHOTO

By Norman P. Aquino, Special Reports Editor

JEDEL RODNEY S. MACINAS, 32, voted for Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte in 2016 after he promised to end corruption and the country’s illegal drug menace in six months.

“He said he would step down if he failed but he’s all talk and no action,” the taxi driver from Albay said in an interview. “Voting for Duterte was one of my biggest regrets.”

Now, the tough-talking leader, who is barred by law from running for reelection, is considering running for vice-president once his six-year term ends in 2022.

A Duterte-Duterte ticket also looms given hints by his daughter Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio of a presidential run.

“We may have the first direct dynastic succession at the presidential palace by the ballot box,” Richard J. Heydarian, a professorial chairholder in geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, said by telephone.

“We’ve had precedents in the past whereby mother and son or father and daughter became Presidents, but never in direct succession,” he said, referring to the late democracy icon Corazon C. Aquino and her son Benigno III, and the late President Diosdado P. Macapagal, Sr. and his daughter Gloria Arroyo.

“But we’re talking about a presidential gap that lasted decades,” Mr. Heydarian said. The prospect of a direct dynastic succession is highly intriguing if not controversial for many people.”

Mr. Duterte this month gave the strongest hint yet that he might run for vice-president in 2022, saying he was “seriously thinking” about the post. Being vice-president could protect him from potential lawsuits, he said, in a country that’s used to sending its former leaders to jail.

His critics and legal experts have refuted such thinking, noting that a Philippine vice- president is impeachable but not immune from lawsuits

Mr. Duterte faces an investigation by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity in connection with his war on drugs that has killed thousands.

Mr. Duterte appears to have been emboldened by the call of his allies at the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan or PDP-Laban for him to run for vice-president. His party mates also asked him to choose his presidential running mate.

‘FORMIDABLE TEAM’
A faction of PDP-Laban had also expressed support for his daughter’s supposed presidential ambition, which has created a rift with the camp of boxing champ and Senator Emmanuel “Manny” D. Pacquiao.

Mr. Duterte led the pack among potential 2022 vice-presidential bets and his daughter remained the top pick to be his successor as President, according to a poll by Pulse Asia Research, Inc.

A potential father and daughter tandem at next year’s elections is particularly controversial in light of earlier speculations that Mr. Duterte might pull off a Putin-Medvedev move.

The Putin-Medvedev tandem was the joint leadership of Russia between 2008 and 2012, when Vladimir Putin, who was barred by law from serving a third straight term as President, assumed the role of Prime Minister under President Dmitry Medvedev.

While the Prime Minister is supposed to be under the President, political experts thought Mr. Putin kept his power. He was reelected President in 2012 and Mr. Medvedev became his Prime Minister.

The probability of a Duterte-Duterte ticket for 2022 injects some interesting dynamics in Philippine elections, Mr. Heydarian said. “Should that happen, we’re looking at a very formidable team — the full machinery of the state and the popularity of the President.”

“A President and vice-president who are relatives would look bad,” Ramon C. Casiple, executive director at the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said by telephone. “It’s politically untested and does not offer an advantage.”

He noted that in the Philippines, where the president and vice-president are elected separately and may come from different parties, candidates for the top and second-top positions usually come from different regions to maximize their political base and support.

“Does Duterte think he has the entire country in his hand and can manage to win with his daughter?” Mr. Casiple asked. “How will they get majority votes in areas outside Mindanao? The Dutertes could get demolished by their rivals in Luzon and the Visayas,” he added.

A potential run for President by Mr. Pacquiao, who like the Dutertes is from Mindanao, is expected to split the region’s vote.

The boxing legend’s star power in a country famed for its boxing-crazed and celebrity-obsessed politics could put him at the forefront of the May 2022 presidential contest.

The rivalry between Mr. Pacquiao and Sara Duterte could open up the space for candidates outside the two camps, including Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso and Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares.

PERMUTATIONS
Like Mr. Duterte, the late President Benigno S.C. Aquino III also enjoyed a 50-60% approval rating, yet divisions among his preferred candidates benefited Mr. Duterte, who had bluffed his way into the presidency, and changed the course of history, Mr. Heydarian said.

“Back in 2015, Duterte supposedly backed out from running just to eventually become a replacement candidate under very controversial legal circumstances but with huge political implications down the road,” he said. “That’s how you intrigue voters, that’s how you get attention.”

There is also the prospect of a tandem between Ms. Duterte for vice- president and ex-Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr. for president next year, which would be less controversial than a father and daughter team.

“I don’t’ think Bongbong Marcos will run for anything less than the presidency, having lost the vice-presidential race only by razor-thin margins, which he had legally contested year after year,” Mr. Heydarian said.

A Duterte-Duterte tandem also doesn’t mean Mr. Duterte would be in power given that his daughter has shown a significant amount of independence and autonomy. “People on the ground would tell you that when Sara was Davao mayor and his father was vice mayor, it was far from a smooth operation. There were tensions, differences in philosophy of governance, not to mention generational differences,” the analyst said.

“All these permutations would make the presidential race more unpredictable than what some people would want to argue as the supposed narrative of inevitability,” Mr. Heydarian said. “I don’t think there is anything inevitable, even if the odds are stacked against the opposition and are in favor of the incumbent and his anointed successor,” he added.

Even if the Dutertes and Marcoses combine forces, there will be baggage. “The Marcoses will have to contend with a still significant anti-Marcos sentiment in the country for the corruption and nepotism that happened under the Marcos regime,” he said.

Mr. Duterte’s record is also far from stellar given his “massive mismanagement” of the coronavirus pandemic. “Duterte may be charming, authentic and may have popular appeal, but what we really need is competent leadership.”

Mr. Macinas, the taxi driver, thinks he won’t make the same mistake twice.

“They killed small-time pushers but big-time drug lords are still here,” he said. “The Chinese are everywhere and the illegal drugs come from China.”

“Pacquiao? He’d want us to believe that he won’t steal taxpayers’ money because he’s already a billionaire,” Mr. Macinas said. “His advisers will be the one to run the country because he’s incompetent. If he really wants to help, just use his money to help the poor.”

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