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MANILA, Philippines – It’s almost unthinkable, a waste of political capital to some, that a popular president would refuse to endorse a presidential candidate to succeed him.
It is from this position that President Rodrigo Duterte refused to budge until the last day of campaigning. The “neutral” stance confounds most especially because one candidate, no less than the frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is partnered with Duterte’s daughter.
It would have been the easiest decision for Duterte to endorse him, strategically. In fact, his national party went ahead and did just that.
Duterte’s stubbornness (could we say restraint?) has influenced this year’s elections in many ways.
The lack of a final choice has empowered his daughter, with the “transfer” of his political capital and endorsement power. That transfer has benefited Marcos Jr. the most.
“The more he says that he will not endorse, the more it gives a leeway for Sara Duterte and Marcos Jr. to really be perceived as supporters or are the candidates of President Duterte,” said Dindo Manhit, president of Stratbase ADR Institute, a think tank that has been commissioning electoral surveys.
Manhit cites data showing that in the months that a Sara Duterte presidential bid was thought possible, Marcos Jr.’s ratings were hovering at 20%.
“But when they (Marcos and Sara) consolidated, they suddenly hit 47%. That was late October. Then when you remove Bato de la Rosa and Bong Go by December, he goes up to 50%,” Manhit told Rappler in an interview.
These movements within Duterte’s coalition have appeared sufficient to establish big chunks of the public to consider the Marcos-Duterte tandem as the tandem with the President’s blessing. After all, the President and his daughter still share the same family name.
But Duterte’s neutral stance has also, perhaps unexpectedly, benefited opposition candidate Leni Robredo, by giving wiggle room to some pro-Duterte local executives to support her.
Chief among these are Bangsamoro Interim Chief Minister Murad Ebrahim, Eastern Samar Governor Ben Evardone, Zamboanga City Mayor Beng Climaco, and Maguindanao Congressman Toto Mangudadatu. They have endorsed Robredo despite being Duterte allies, citing the President’s lack of anointed one as a free pass to choose whoever they want.
Thus, Duterte’s unwillingness to choose a presidential candidate has also weakened PDP-Laban in that some of its members have declined to support the candidate its leadership has chosen.
Evardone said his decision to back Robredo, and not Marcos, had the blessing of Duterte himself.
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, the “third force” candidate has also benefited to a lesser degree from Duterte’s neutrality.
Allies like former agrarian secretary John Castriciones, Taguig City Mayor Lino Cayetano, pro-Duterte bloggers and celebrities have decided to support him, also partly due to his lack of an “anointed one.”
But this does not make up for an endorsement from Duterte himself. In this regard, despite public remarks courting Duterte and backdoor efforts, Moreno had been left hanging.
In the two events where he and Duterte were together (Rizal Day rites and the inauguration of a Chinese-funded bridge), the President barely interacted with him.
In fact, courting Duterte then being ignored could have been harmful to Moreno because it made him appear like a “rejected applicant,” said political science professor Aries Arugay in a January interview.
Skin in the game
Duterte claims “all” presidential candidates sent emissaries to him seeking his endorsement. Only Marcos was able to get a meeting, arranged by Duterte’s partymate Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi.
But even with that personal touch, Marcos failed to get an endorsement.
Yet anyone can see that it would make strategic sense for Duterte to do everything in his power to ensure an ally succeeds him. The next president will have a big say on whether or not Duterte will face accountability for his drug war, for example, or the Pharmally contracts.
More than talk of elections, what the President has mentioned more often in his recent speeches is the pending International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into his drug war.
“I am a Filipino. If I am to be tried, it must be a Filipino court. If there is a prosecutor, it must be a Filipino prosecutor and court, not ICC. It must be a Philippine court,” he said during a PDP-Laban rally in Cainta last May 3.
Moreno, on cue, had declared he would not hand Duterte over to the ICC if they issue a warrant. It is, word for word, what Duterte would like to hear from the next president.
While mum on his presidential bet, Duterte has been actively campaigning against senatorial candidates he does not like – Richard Gordon, Risa Hontiveros, Leila de Lima, and Antonio Trillanes IV.
His determination to bring them down is proven by the frequency of his rants against them and the venues in which he makes these rants – in his weekly “talk to the people” and in PDP-Laban campaign rallies.
He knows a lot is at stake for him in this election. So why stay mum on the most critical race of all – the presidential race?
A father’s grudge
Analysts theorize it could be two factors influencing one another: Duterte’s personal irritation at being sidelined in his daughter’s 2022 decision and his unwillingness to take a high-stakes gamble.
“It is consistent with observations that President Duterte is driven more by emotions on matters that he disagrees with,” political science professor Herman Kraft told Rappler.
Like in the 2019 elections, Duterte’s tendency to make political decisions based on personal circumstance proves he is no institution-builder. If he was, he would have used his considerable political capital to turn his party PDP-Laban into a kingmaker. Instead, his party had to wait for him to make up his mind and only when it was clear he would not endorse anyone did they make the decision themselves to back Marcos. But the party endorsement came late and was perceived as weaker than if Duterte had also personally backed the choice of Marcos.
“I did not like what happened,” Duterte told pro-Duterte blogger Byron Cristobal in an interview after Sara formalized her vice-presidential bid before the Commission on Elections.
He assumed that Sara’s decision was not hers, but that of Marcos, who, interestingly enough, first offered the position of his running mate to Duterte himself.
In those critical mid-November weeks where the 2022 electoral landscape was quickly changing, Duterte still had a horse to bet on – his loyal aide Senator Bong Go.
Go had yet to withdraw his presidential bid. It was in fact Duterte who had urged him to seek Malacañang, after Go shed tears about Sara’s last-minute decision to run for the same post he was vying for at the time.
“Sabi niya tatakbo si Inday (Sara Duterte), magwi-withdraw na lang siya. Ayaw na niya. Sabi ko, ‘Bakit ganoon? Nag-umpisa ka na.’ Eh ‘di tumakbo ka na lang ng president. Eh ganoon lang pala ang gagawin sa ‘yo eh. Eh di kasa ka na,,” Duterte recounted.
(He said Inday was running, so he was withdrawing. He didn’t want to do it anymore. I said, “Why? You’ve already started. Just run for president. If that’s what they’re going to do to you, load up.)
With Go still in the game, Duterte had every reason to hit his aide’s chief rival, Marcos. Hence, the “cocaine addict” and “weak leader” attacks from November 18 to 22.
Duterte’s criticisms of Marcos dominated headlines for weeks and inspired all sorts of reactions from everyone. Marcos, Moreno, Manny Pacquiao, and Panfilo Lacson even got themselves tested for illegal drugs.
But it was short-lived. The moment Go withdrew his presidential candidacy, Duterte lost any personal reason to campaign hard for anyone, or attack anyone. His Marcos diatribes stopped after Go decided to back out.
It was resurrected weakly when, after Moreno brought up the Marcos estate tax, Duterte referred to it briefly in a March 29 public address. He said it’s the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s job to collect the debt.
The light touch was in stark contrast to his harsh threats against other families or companies that have neglected to pay government fees – like Lucio Tan and his Philippine Airlines or the Wongchukings who own cigarette-maker Mighty Corporation.
But by then, Marcos’ survey ratings had soared to unprecedented heights, high enough perhaps to give even Duterte reason to pause.
Then three days before elections, Duterte even appeared to soften his words against Marcos by falsely claiming during an interview with Apollo Quiboloy that there was “no finding” of ill-gotten wealth.
Still, this was not the clear-cut endorsement that holds maximum political value.
A threat unfulfilled
But as the country careened into 2022, Duterte was threatening to influence elections in another way – not by endorsing but by doing reputation damage.
In January, the President warned he would at one point, likely in the last month of the campaign period, “personally name the candidates and maybe what’s wrong with them.”
Still, aside from a vague March 22 claim that the party of a presidential candidate has been “infiltrated” by communist forces, Duterte never made good on his threat.
It’s possible that Duterte’s innate pragmatism cautioned him against any more attacks against Marcos, or other presidential bets. Aside from earning the ire of someone who could be president and his own daughter (whom he has called the apple of his eye), further diatribes against Marcos could just bolster the chances of second-placer Robredo, the thorn of his administration.
Duterte himself had previously led misogynistic attacks against Robredo, emboldening his supporters to tear at the credibility of the Vice President.
What of Moreno? Duterte may have noticed that the Manila mayor, though similar to him in so many ways and who already had some of his own allies by his side, was not doing well in surveys. The President, though he has claimed during his own presidential bid not to believe in surveys, actually takes a look at them. This is proven by how Duterte even used a Social Weather Stations survey to justify his decision not to run for vice president.
“When there was that survey saying that 60% of Filipinos question the constitutionality of President Duterte running for vice president, Duterte decided, found it wise and prudent for him not to run,” Duterte’s party president Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said in an ANC interview.
If Duterte believes in Pulse Asia surveys, then he would have seen as early as December that the two top contenders for his post were Marcos and Robredo. Neither, perhaps, was palatable to him.
For Duterte, who has never played a game he knew he couldn’t win, there is safety in neutrality.
Why not Marcos?
But then, if survey ratings consistently showed the odds favoring Marcos, wouldn’t it have been strategic to endorse his daughter’s standard-bearer?
After all, despite everything, Marcos has not said anything harsh about Duterte. He has even pledged to continue Duterte’s priority programs.
Does Duterte then doubt surveys? Or is it more likely that the sins of November have not been forgiven?
Or, does Duterte genuinely not want Marcos to be president, as can be gleaned from his criticisms of the dictator’s son months ago?
Was there something sincere, aside from strategic, about those past attacks against Marcos? After all, Duterte is close to personalities who have no love for the Marcoses – his former Cabinet secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., a former rebel tortured during the dictatorship and Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez, a member of the then-anti-Marcos PDP-Laban in the early 1980s.
Dominguez, for one thing, was surprisingly responsive and candid to reporters and Moreno’s party mate Ernest Ramel, chairman of Aksyon Demokratiko, about the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s efforts to collect the Marcos estate tax. His statements prolonged the media scrutiny on the issue and gave the impression that the Duterte administration agreed in principle with the Marcoses’ obligation to pay the debt.
Someone much closer to Duterte was an anti-Marcos figure: his revered late mother Soledad Roa Duterte. Nanay Soling fought the Marcos dictatorship as a leading Yellow Friday Movement leader in Davao City, even if her husband, Vicente Duterte, had been a former Marcos Cabinet member.
Could it be that, after allowing Marcos’ burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, Duterte considered his political debt to the strongman’s heirs paid and he could be free to act based on his personal inclinations or principles?
Could there be an even simpler reason for Duterte’s ambiguity? Could the 77-year-old Chief Executive just be too tired to participate more actively in this election season?
Even in political rallies, Duterte talks about being spent. He would like nothing more than to go back to his house in Davao City. He wants his freedom back.
“I’ll be a civilian na in a few days,” he said last Tuesday, May 3, his last rally with PDP-Laban.
“Now that I won’t be president anymore, nobody can dictate what I do. I will go riding on a motorcycle and roam around. And I’ll search for drug peddlers, shoot them and kill them,” he said on Friday, May 6, in Davao City, during his last rally of the campaign period.
When Go, back in mid-November, explained to a room full of PDP-Laban governors why he was having second thoughts about running for president, he supposedly mentioned Duterte’s health as one concern.
“He did not want the President to experience the rigors of the campaign. He took pity on the President who, at his age, would have to lead a campaign,” said Presidential Adviser on Political Affairs Jacinto Paras then, explaining to Rappler what he heard Go say.
During the months of the 2022 campaign period, Duterte was busy signing a slew of enrolled bills into law, visiting typhoon-hit or eruption-affected areas, holding weekly meetings about the pandemic, and going around the country with the greater freedom afforded him by the lowering number of COVID-19 cases.
In the 2022 elections, Duterte gave up his agency to determine, in any meaningful or personal way, his successor. But maybe for the three-decade politician on his way out from the highest elected position in the land, there are battles you can afford to sit out. – Rappler.com