Duterte's daughter shores up support for flagging father

Ms Sara Duterte (in green) forms an alliance with Ms Imee Marcos. In photos last week, they are seen making Mr Duterte's trademark fist and the V sign associated with the late Ferdinand Marcos' rule.
Ms Sara Duterte (in green) forms an alliance with Ms Imee Marcos. In photos last week, they are seen making Mr Duterte's trademark fist and the V sign associated with the late Ferdinand Marcos' rule.PHOTO: REUTERS

Davao City Mayor seen as possible successor to President

MANILA • Nine months away from mid-term elections that could determine the success or failure of Mr Rodrigo Duterte's presidency, his daughter, Ms Sara Duterte, is fast emerging as a power broker who is aiming to shore up support for his ambitious policy agenda, and, some experts and insiders say, his eventual succession.

By his own admission, the 73-year-old President is flagging. On Tuesday, he lamented his uphill struggle to tackle illicit drugs and cut state corruption, predicting that he'll "hardly make a dent" in his remaining four years in office. During a ceremony and again at a dinner afterwards, he said he was tired, exasperated and thinking about quitting.

That contrasts sharply from his 40-year-old daughter, who has started manoeuvring to build alliances and expand her small party in the southern Davao region into a new political juggernaut, as fissures appear in her father's ruling PDP-Laban party.

She was instrumental in bringing together political factions to stage a dramatic July 23 ousting of divisive Duterte ally Pantaleon Alvarez as Lower House Speaker, replacing him with veteran Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, 71, a former president with clout and connections to ensure support for Mr Duterte and his agenda.

The move was helped by a relationship developing between Ms Sara Duterte and Ms Imee Marcos, 62, a provincial governor and key figure in the still influential family of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines for two decades before being ousted in a 1986 uprising.

The two women posed together for pictures last week, each with one hand doing Mr Duterte's trademark clenched fist, and making a "V" sign synonymous with the rule of Mr Marcos with the other.

Mr Duterte also said last week that if he steps down, Ms Marcos' brother and former senator, Mr Ferdinand Marcos Jr, would have been a capable replacement for him.

EXHAUSTED PRESIDENT

People around (Rodrigo) Duterte are looking for a new centre of gravity. They see signs of an exhausted president and see there could be some kind of succession that can protect their interests. He has a very shallow network of politicians, he's not at his peak. He just has to hold on as long as he can.

DR RICHARD HEYDARIAN, an academic who studies politics, on the implications of Mr Duterte's waning support.

Mr Duterte's relationship with daughter Sara has, however, often appeared rocky and she has portrayed herself as his reluctant successor as mayor of Davao City. Despite that, few doubt her loyalty to him. Although she denies being interested, she and other Duterte allies, including his spokesman, his special assistant and his former police chief, are tipped to run for the 24-seat Senate in 2019, as is Ms Marcos.

Mr Marcos Jr came a close second to Mr Duterte's rival in the 2016 vice-presidential election, Ms Leni Robredo. But Mr Marcos Jr has challenged the result in court.

Dr Richard Heydarian, an author, columnist and academic who specialises in politics, said the Marcos family wanted to stay relevant nationally and in a political culture where loyalties easily shift, Ms Duterte was now widely seen as a figure worth rallying behind.

"People around (Rodrigo) Duterte are looking for a new centre of gravity. They see signs of an exhausted president and see there could be some kind of succession that can protect their interests," he said. "He has a very shallow network of politicians, he's not at his peak. He just has to hold on as long as he can."

Mr Duterte acknowledges that, and on Tuesday said he can't resign because a constitutional succession would mean handing power to opposition leader and Vice-President Robredo, who was elected separately.

Mr Duterte's relationship with daughter Sara has, however, often appeared rocky and she has portrayed herself as his reluctant successor as Mayor of Davao City. Despite that, few doubt her loyalty to him. Although she denies being interested, she and other Duterte allies, including his spokesman, his special assistant and his former police chief, are tipped to run for the 24-seat Senate in 2019, as is Ms Marcos.

That could be a game-changer for the President, who has built a strong majority in the House of Representatives but needs control of the Upper House to deliver on his promises.

Among a raft of plans, he wants to redraft the Constitution and deliver his centrepiece economic policy, a US$180 billion (S$247 billion) infrastructure spree designed to modernise the country, spur spending, create jobs and lure investment.

"Now is the chance to further consolidate power by controlling both houses of congress and the local government units so all of us can we move forward in cadence," said a member of a nine-party alliance formed by Ms Duterte last week, who requested anonymity. "The goal is, fill the Senate with people who can help... We don't want people who will only obstruct his plans."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2018, with the headline 'Duterte's daughter shores up support for flagging father'. Print Edition | Subscribe