Sara Duterte

Sara, the other Duterte

Bea Cupin
Sara, the other Duterte

ANOTHER DUTERTE. Sara, the incumbent president's eldest daughter, seeks the second-highest post in the land as her father ends his presidency.

Lisa Marie David/Reuters (Sara Duterte); Presidential Photo (Rodrigo Duterte)

Rodrigo Duterte's chosen successor faces a national election that tests her mettle as political bigwig and heir to the Duterte dynasty

MANILA, Philippines – Sara Zimmerman Duterte’s first major introduction to the national scene was not a flattering one. 

The first-time Davao city mayor, then 33 years old, landed a punch (four, actually) on a court sheriff who went ahead and implemented a notice of eviction despite her request for it to be delayed so that she could oversee the eviction herself and avoid a riot. 

The incident, caught on video, quickly went viral in an age before the dominance of social media.  

More than a decade later, Sara Duterte carries the memory of the controversy with pride – so much so that it’s in her official profile as a vice presidential candidate in the 2022 elections. 

She describes it as a “turning point” in her political career. At that time, she was a little over a year into her first term as mayor, having finished a three-year term as vice mayor – the first elected post she ever held. The punching incident, Duterte now says, is a “constant reminder not to embarrass the mandate given to [her] by the people.”

Infamy is no longer Sara Duterte’s main narrative.

To her most fervent supporters, she is the Davao mayor who was going to gun for a third consecutive term, were it not for those who clamored for her to seek a national post. To the die-hards of her father, she is his successor, the guarantee of continuity, even if she’s running for vice president “only.” 

To rivals, she’s the other half of a formidable tandem, the early leaders of the 2022 race. 

And just like in 2016, it’s chants of “Duterte” that reverberate through the biggest political rallies in 2022, COVID-19 be damned. 

Her father’s daughter 

In a different world, Sara Duterte could be a lot of things. She’s joked that she wanted to be a singer but when she turns serious, she says she once dreamed of being a physician. 

Earl Parreño, who wrote a biography on President Duterte, characterizes her as the child her father “truly relied on.”  

After she passed the Bar in 2005, the younger Duterte, also a graduate of respiratory therapy, joined politics. Her first foray in 2007 was for no less than the second-highest post in Davao City – as vice mayor to her father, who was then gunning for his last consecutive term. 

That Duterte chose his own flesh and blood to be his vice mayor – a post that’s supposed to provide the checks and balances to the city mayor – ruffled both the opposition and at least one ally. Former ally Ruy Elias Lopez, who is running for the mayoralty in 2022, said it’s why he severed ties with the older Duterte. 

Sara, then only 28, brushed off criticism over the burgeoning Duterte political dynasty by saying voters had a choice whether or not to elect both Dutertes to the top posts in the city. Her youth? The younger Duterte spun it as “reflective of the temper of the times,” referring to other political spawn who were joining electoral politics, Parreño wrote. 

CAMPAIGN TRAIL. Sara Duterte in San Francisco, Agusan Del Sur. Photo courtesy of Uniteam/Lakas-CMD

But even as they campaigned in 2007, the older Duterte has always insisted: my daughter has a mind of her own. Upon taking over the vice mayoralty, Duterte formed her own team – she’d do the same when she took over as mayor from 2010 to 2013, and again in 2016, when she ran for mayor again to replace her father, who was swept to the presidency. 

Davaoeños noted a shift in priorities – social service programs got bigger funding – when Sara took over. But transitions (they happened twice), were generally smooth, said Ramon Belleno II of the Ateneo de Davao University’s (ADDU) political science and history department. 

“Davao is already a well-oiled machine, it’s just the direction that you just worry about. The local government itself is a well-oiled machine,” he told Rappler. 

But there are differences, particularly in how they’re perceived. While the older Duterte was the “everyman mayor,” some of Sara Duterte’s policies – towards public transportation, for instance – have been labeled as “anti-poor,” said Belleno. 

A mind of her own 

Allies and enemies – the ones father and daughter share and even the ones only either have – will tell you, repeatedly, that the daughter acts independently of her father. 

Sara, in 2018, was behind moves to oust Pantaleon Alvarez, then-House speaker and a close ally of her father. She – hand in hand with two other women who also happened to be daughters of former presidents – succeeded. 

So it should not have been a surprise when, in the lead-up to the 2022 polls, Sara Duterte did not budge even when her father himself insisted she run for president. 

The younger Duterte then led early presidential preference surveys up until the week certificates of candidacy (COCs) would be filed. Sara shut down talk of a presidential run, citing her father’s acceptance of PDP-Laban’s nomination as vice presidential candidate. 

Some Duterte insiders articulated a concern back in 2021 that a father-daughter tandem would have been too much of an imposition on the electorate, presenting themselves as the ultimate political dynasty having command over the country when Duterte himself ran on a platform of “change.”

But when her father announced his “retirement,” the pressure from supporters and political allies to run only intensified. The 43-year-old responded to her father’s announcement by quietly filing her COC for her third and last consecutive term as Davao City mayor. 

Still, wiggle room was left for President Duterte’s Inday, the daughter he used to dote on. PDP-Laban fielded a placeholder in the person of Senator Ronald dela Rosa, President Duterte’s loyal soldier and former Davao City police chief to Sara. 

The idea was for the Davao mayor to substitute Dela Rosa and run for president alongside Senator Bong Go, her father’s long-time aide and PDP-Laban vice presidential bet. President Duterte cheered on a “Duterte-Go” 2022 tandem, referring to his eldest daughter and Go, whom people in Davao see as a child of the President, at least politically.  

OATH. President Duterte is sworn into office with his children (left to right) Kitty, Sebastian, Sara, and Paolo, by his side. Malacañang file photo

The Davao mayor had never been particularly close to her father, particularly after his marriage with her mother, Elizabeth Zimmerman, crumbled. Unlike her father, Sara’s personal life has mostly been kept personal. She married fellow lawyer Manases “Mans” Carpio in 2007. He runs the private firm Carpio & Duterte Lawyers and is the one who handles most business dealings for their family.

Sara did open up in 2016 when, after the deadly Davao bombings, she lost two of the triplets she was carrying. The Davao mayor gave birth to her youngest son, Stonefish, in March 2017. 

Her role as mother to three young children – her youngest Stonefish and older kids Sharky and Stingray – Davao observers told Rappler, is part of the reason why her decision to go national wasn’t easy. A national campaign and, eventually, a national post, would mean time away from her three children. 

Speaking to Rappler in 2012, Sara said she and her siblings “rarely saw” their father at home “because he was always at work.” 

People, hindi sila naniniwala. Hindi kami nag-uusap, pero hindi kami magkaaway. Ganoon lang talaga relationship namin, ganoon kinalakihan ko,” she said. (People usually don’t believe me. We don’t talk, but we’re not at odds. That’s just how our relationship works, that’s what I got used to growing up.)

Back then, Sara insisted, they never talk about work – politics, in their case – because they didn’t really talk at all, period. 

Still, Rodrigo had plans for Sara. 

But Sara would have none of this. She had different plans. 

After weeks of silence – and a bout with COVID-19 – Sara Duterte again made headlines. First, it was a quick trip to Cebu where she happened to meet Bongbong Marcos Jr., the late dictator’s son and the second-place leader in preference surveys she topped. 

In the week before the deadline of substitution via withdrawal, Sara Duterte withdrew her mayoral candidacy, fielded her youngest brother for mayor, stood as godmother to a senator’s daughter, joined a national party, and then, via proxy, substituted Lakas-CMD’s placeholder vice presidential candidate. 

A week later, Marcos Jr. confirmed that Sara Duterte would be his vice presidential bet, via an alliance of their parties. 

Sara would seek a national post after all, but on her terms. 

NEW PARTY MEMBER. After filing then withdrawing her candidacy for Davao mayor, Sara Duterte joins Lakas-CMD. She later files her candidacy as the party’s vice presidential bet. Photo courtesy of Lakas-CMD
North and south 

The older Duterte was miffed. 

While Sara said her choice to run for vice president instead was an “opportunity to meet [supporters] halfway,” her father saw it as the machination of the Marcos clan. 

Insiders from Lakas-CMD said they were confident that Sara would choose to run for a national post, but weren’t 100% sure which it’d be.

Vice president was ideal and, even to casual observers, likely. Remember the trip to Cebu where she met Marcos Jr.? The main occasion was the birthday of Yedda Romualdez, wife of House Majority Leader and Lakas-CMD president Martin Romualdez, Marcos Jr.’s cousin.

To Belleno, the decision to run for vice president under a national party that isn’t PDP-Laban signaled Sara Duterte establishing space between herself and her father, the President. At the same time, she’s been careful to maintain that link to the older Duterte – he is, after all, a sitting president who enjoys high approval ratings. 

Ronald Holmes, polling firm Pulse Asia president, said more than half of respondents who approved of and trust President Duterte “expressed a preference for Sara as vice president.”

Belleno also pointed out that keeping the link to her father is important not just because of his mass base, but also because of his ties to officials on the ground. PDP-Laban would eventually “adopt” Sara as its vice presidential bet, absent a formal alliance with any of her parties. With no endorsement from the older Duterte, it’s become a free-for-all for PDP-Laban members when it comes to their presidential bet.  

ALLIANCE. Marcos Jr.and Duterte during the first day of the campaign period for the 2022 elections. Reuters file

Sara Duterte, after all, has mixed results as a political player herself. As chief campaigner of the Hugpong ng Pagbagbago (HNP) 2019 slates, she did okay. While the regional party’s Senate slate (they had a different slate of fewer bets for their national alliances) dominated in Davao City and Davao del Sur, their local slate didn’t fare as well. 

Interestingly enough, one of the politicians HNP failed to unseat was Pantaleon Alvarez, the same man whom Sara Duterte ousted as House speaker a year prior. 

But the distance is crucial too, said Belleno, if the daughter wants to court non-administration supporters as well. “The image of her not following her father’s orders, that’s a subtle way of saying: ‘Well, there’s distance between us but it’s not total distance to totally lose the support of the administration,’” said Belleno. 

And she is, of course, still her father’s daughter. 

People who’ve worked with the Dutertes will almost always say: at the end of the day, Rodrigo Duterte’s family will look out for each other, despite whispers of discord between the father and his adult children. 

Consolidation of forces 

Foolish as her father may have thought of her decision to “slide down” to vice president, the Marcos Jr and Duterte tandem – Uniteam, in their own words – paved the way for a level of “unification” the Philippine opposition could only dream of. 

The alliance is made up of Marcos Jr.’s Partido Federal ng Pilipinas, the two parties Sara Duterte chairs – Lakas-CMD and Hugpong – and Erap Estrada’s Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino. 

Several other big names in Philippine politics make the initial Uniteam alliance – Lakas-CMD president emeritus Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the Romualdezes. Other political clans quickly followed suit – the Remullas in vote-rich Cavite and the Gatchalians of Valenzuela, to name a few. 

TRADITIONAL POLITICS. The ‘Uniteam’ alliance brings together not only Marcos and Duterte, but a long list of old names in Philippine politics. In a system where parties aren’t the strongest, it’s clan who rule in the political arena. Rappler file

In campaign sorties and press releases, the two candidates tout how their alliance brought together the “tiger” of the north and the “eagle” from the south. It goes beyond the cheese of their metaphors. 

Marcos Jr. brings with him the advantage of the so-called “Solid North” while Sara Duterte brings with her the Rodrigo Duterte vote. 

Stratbase Group founder and managing director Victor Andres Manhit, in a closed-door briefing on February 16, said their alliance consolidates the forces of the Duterte vote. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter who President Duterte endorses in 2022 – if he ever does. That Marcos Jr. has his daughter as running mate should make rival presidential bets “forget about the endorsement.” 

The fact that Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte are members of political dynasties, added Manhit, isn’t a bad thing for voters. Previous surveys had shown that only 1 in 4 voters reject a candidate from a political dynasty. 

The rest? They either don’t know what to feel about dynasties or would elect dynasties into office. Turns out, 28-year-old Sara Duterte was right many years back – voters have a choice and oftentimes, they choose political dynasties. 

Sara’s test 

Romeo Cabarde Jr., of the ADDU political science department, told Rappler in a previous interview that the older Duterte’s political movements – at the national level and in Davao – is a “game of chess,” where Sara is queen.

The older Duterte had long seen his eldest daughter as his successor. During their 2010 miting de avance – Sara was running for mayor and the older Duterte, her vice mayor – Rodrigo Duterte declared he was “passing on” the mayorship to Sara. 

Davao mayoralty bet Ruy Elias Lopez, the older Duterte’s ally-turned-political-foe, said his distrust of anybody who isn’t family stems from his experience in 2001. Benjamin de Guzman, who was then Duterte’s vice mayor, refused to step aside when the older Duterte was ready to leave a congressional stint that bored him. Duterte wanted to be Davao mayor again. 

“He learned from that experience. Pero nung nanalo kami, sabi niya: ‘di na nato ulitin ito uy.’ Traumatized siya, that he could lose. So ‘yun ang psyche,” explained Luy. 

(But when we won, he told me: “We aren’t doing this again.” He’s traumatized from the idea of losing. That’s his psyche.) 

Distrust in allies isn’t unique to the older Duterte. Sara, both implicitly and explicitly, expressed a dislike for her father’s allies, particularly PDP-Laban. Davao observers noted Sara Duterte’s seeming wariness toward some personalities who surrounded her father when he ascended to Malacañang. 

Would the daughter bring with her the same wariness in the national campaign? 

There’s also the matter of this being Sara Duterte’s first real campaign. In Davao, the Dutertes dominate.

Since recapturing the mayoralty in 2001, it was mostly smooth-sailing for the older Duterte. The magic transferred to his endorsed candidates and, obviously, his children. 

Sara won easily in 2007. In 2010, Sara found herself pitted against then-House speaker Prospero Nograles in a bitter campaign that the older Duterte managed to turn into a Rodrigo vs Prospero battle, said Parreño in his Duterte biography.

The day after the elections, the Commission on Elections announced that Sara Duterte won by a landslide – 380,268 votes to Nograles’ 103,963 votes. “The voters were amazed, not at Sara’s victory, but how fast the votes were counted,” wrote Parreño. 

In 2016, Sara ran virtually unopposed, with her closest rival registering only over 2,000 votes. The same happened in the 2016 elections. Mercifully, that time, her closest rival at least got over 4,000 votes. 

She went around the country in 2019 to campaign for her two Senate slates to mixed results – winning big nationally but settling for split results in her own home turf. The Davao mayor has done the same in 2022 – traveling around the country in what she’s called the “Mahalin Natin ang Pilipinas Ride.” 

VICE PRESIDENTIAL RUN. Sara Duterte in San Francisco, Agusan Del Sur, during the start of her caravan around the country. Photo courtesy of Uniteam/Lakas-CMD

But this year, it’s different – this time, she’s the candidate. 

Sara Duterte has always had a huge advantage, at least politically. For the most part, it was her father, Rodrigo Duterte, who laid the foundation and painstakingly built a political dynasty that’s now going national. 

In each election, it’s been a delicate dance of exploiting that advantage while proving her mettle as a politician. A lot is on the line – her father faces an investigation from the International Criminal Court even as Sara, the child he thinks he could always count on, rises as the new head of the Duterte dynasty. – Rappler.com

Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.