Sara Duterte

As Marcos-Duterte clans clash, should Sara resign from the Cabinet?

Bonz Magsambol, Mia M. Gonzalez

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As Marcos-Duterte clans clash, should Sara resign from the Cabinet?

WILL SHE RESIGN? File photo of Vice President Sara Duterte during the school opening in Cebu City in August 2023

Jacqueline Hernandez/Rappler

On a political stage where two popular figures are at play, whoever flinches first loses

MANILA, Philippines – It was an alliance that critics and political observers had jinxed as doomed from the start. The only questions were, when and what would happen to Vice President Sara Duterte, who is still a member of the Marcos Cabinet.

They got a partial answer on January 28. The day that Marcos launched “Bagong Pilipinas” in Manila and promised to transform the country into a new and better version, down south, Davao City Mayor Sebastian “Baste” Duterte called for his resignation while former president Rodrigo Duterte branded the President as a “drug addict.”

The Vice President attended the Bagong Pilipinas launch but she also went to the prayer rally against charter change where her family members took turns lambasting the President she served as a Cabinet member. A day later, she released a statement defending her younger brother’s tirade against Marcos as “brotherly love,” in protest of her “despicable treatment” by people in the President’s circle. It was a sentiment that she apparently shared.

Uniteam, the marriage of political convenience that brought the Marcos-Duterte tandem to victory in the 2022 elections, crumbled on Sunday, January 28.

The word war between the Dutertes and the Marcoses has sparked calls for Sara to resign as education secretary, a job that commands 900,000 teaching staff scattered across the country.

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‘Stuck to each other’

Despite her family’s attacks against Marcos and her own sentiments of being ganged up on by administration allies, Sara has no plan, as yet, to leave DepEd. Her messaging, based on her January 29 statement, is that she would strive to endure the “attacks, black propaganda, and smear campaign” against her because she was elected by millions and that she would remain in the Cabinet for as long as she’s wanted.

In an interview on Tuesday, January 31, political analyst Cleve Arguelles said that calls for Sara to leave the DepEd did not come as a surprise, as being part of the Marcos Cabinet should mean unequivocal support for the President.

“But I think the more interesting question here is why is the President still keeping her after all that happened?” Arguelles said, adding, this means that “she still enjoys the confidence, the trust, and the support of the President.”

Marcos said as much on Tuesday, in response to questions in a media interview. He also said that his professional relationship with the Vice President is “exactly the same,” sounding like a showbiz personality trying to cover up a rocky relationship with a love team partner.

As Marcos-Duterte clans clash, should Sara resign from the Cabinet?

Just like any other popular tandem, they have to stick to each other despite their differences to keep their support bases intact. Mindanao remains a stronghold of the Duterte family and delivered votes for Marcos in the 2022 elections. Likewise, the Marcoses’ “Solid North” delivered votes for Sara.

Marcos got 7.2 million votes in Mindanao, while Sara obtained 3.5 million votes in the Solid North.

“They need each other,” Arguelles said. “I think this is a paradox of the Uniteam that they’re starting to dislike each other but then they also need each other. At this point, they are stuck with each other.”

Sara is undeniably more popular than Marcos. Despite their ratings plunging amid a string of issues in 2023, Sara still got a 73% approval rating while Marcos got 65%, according to a Pulse Asia survey in September 2023.

Arguelles also cited the seeming “tradition” in Philippine politics that vice presidents who break off with the president do not fare so well among voters.

“They don’t like a vice president [who] is not cooperative with the president,” he said.

This is what happened to then-vice presidents Jejomar Binay and Leni Robredo. They were initially part of the Cabinet but later resigned because of divergent views. Binay had been leading the surveys for the presidency that time but he became the subject of attacks. Meanwhile, Robredo became the casualty of online propaganda discrediting her work as vice president.

DepEd as a stepping stone

Sara would be on the losing end if she resigns from the Marcos Cabinet this early. The DepEd is a platform that can help her maintain a national profile, especially if she has ambitions for higher office. Based on DepEd data, there are 876,842 teaching personnel and 60,429 schools all over the country.

“She will stay there for as long as she could,” Arguelles said. “If you’re no longer in the Cabinet, what will you do as vice president? What power and resources will [you have]?”

The Philippines is among the countries that produced the lowest proficiency for young learners in reading, mathematics, and science, as indicated by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2022 rankings. That fact, however, has not rubbed off on public perception of Sara’s work as education chief. In December, the same month the PISA rankings were released, pollster WR Numero conducted a survey which showed that 57% of Filipinos still think Sara is doing a good job at DepEd.

In her second basic education report, Sara also promised reforms in the education sector and more benefits for teachers. Arguelles said this may be a calculated move especially if she has an eye to the 2028 elections.

“It will always be helpful for her to be able to say that she delivered to the education sector,” Arguelles said.

Amid the political bickering, there are concerns that the DepEd, which has under its care millions of Filipino students and the very future of the country, would be placed at greater risk. If Sara’s attention is further distracted by her political plans, the learning crisis in the country would worsen. Her qualifications as education chief have been in question in the first place.

“It’s really one of my worries, we can look at it from the perspective that, ‘Oh this is exciting,’ ‘di ba kasi (because) we’re watching a showdown between these two powerful dynasties. Si Vice President, isang araw lang na malingat siya (If the Vice President gets distracted by even just one day), it will define the future of millions of Filipino students,” Arguelles said.

Critics have been calling for the President to appoint a DepEd secretary who has an education background.

Playing the underdog card

In her January 29 statement, Sara said she will endure the attacks against her out of respect for the Filipinos who had voted her into office, evoking an image of a punching bag. This is far from the image that gained her infamy over a decade ago: that of the feisty female mayor who grabbed a sheriff by the collar and punched him repeatedly after he led the demolition of shanties in a community in Davao City.

Political analyst Arjan Aguirre said that the ongoing rift in the Uniteam coalition can be advantageous for Sara, who can play the “underdog card.”

“While staying as a Cabinet member, she can still draw sympathy from the people by appearing as the underdog and bullied personality within the coalition. She just has to look like she is being bullied by the House Speaker and other personalities and use the anti-elite or anti-oligarchy card that is consistent [with] the Duterte brand of politics,” Aguirre said.

“I think what she wants to happen here is for the President to fire or dismiss her or openly go against her. That would mean an open war is finally happening and that it would look like the Marcos faction caused it,” he added.

As the Vice President has said, the ball is in Marcos’ court. On a political stage where two popular figures are at play, whoever flinches first loses. – with a report from Patrick Cruz/Rappler.com

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.
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Mia M. Gonzalez

Mia M. Gonzalez is a senior desk editor of Rappler. She previously covered the Philippine presidency and politics. An award-winning literary writer, she is the author of Welostit and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.