Sara Duterte

Who is the real opposition leader and why can’t it be Sara Duterte?

Kaycee Valmonte

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Who is the real opposition leader and why can’t it be Sara Duterte?

David Castuciano

Since Vice President Sara Duterte bolted the Marcos Cabinet, her allies have been peddling her as a 'real opposition leader,' but her words and actions make her unfit for this role, say political analysts

When Vice President Sara Duterte stepped down from her post as secretary of education, former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque unilaterally declared her as the “leader of the opposition.”

This was immediately rejected by the Liberal Party, which has led the political opposition since the Rodrigo Duterte administration. LP spokesperson Leila de Lima pointed out that the qualities of an opposition leader “cannot be seen in the track record” of the Vice President.

“In leaving her posts, she failed to own up to her responsibilities or even change her principles and stances. How would she be the opposition leader if until now, the public still demands accountability from her?” De Lima asked.

Must Read

Everything you need to know about Sara Duterte’s resignation from the Marcos Cabinet

Everything you need to know about Sara Duterte’s resignation from the Marcos Cabinet

The LP was not alone in debunking Roque’s claim. Many netizens noted the Vice President’s continued silence on pressing issues like China’s aggression against Filipinos in the West Philippine Sea, and her being hell-bent in defending fugitive doomsday preacher Apollo Quiboloy. One of them proclaimed, “We are the OPPOSITION to her ‘new opposition.'”

But what does it mean to be an opposition leader?

Opposition with conviction vs political enemy

Joey Salgado, a political communications practitioner who also served as the former spokesman of vice president Jejomar Binay, said it should first be made clear what kind of opposition figure Duterte is being packaged to be.

“One is an opposition that stands deeply…or [one who has] convictions,” Salgado told Rappler. “And then there’s such a thing as a literal opposition – you become opposition because you’re running against someone who is not from your party or is a candidate of the ruling administration.”

In the United States, which operates under a two-party system, Democrat leaders have specific values and campaigns their Republican counterparts don’t necessarily agree with. For instance, an issue such as legalizing abortion would have US politicians divided. According to the Pew Research Center, abortion is backed by 80% of Democrat leaders, while only 38% of Republicans – the more conservative political party – support it.

For Filipinos, the difference lies in the country’s political system.

Dr. Cleo Calimbahin, a political science professor specializing in elections, corruption, and democracy studies, points out: “In this country where we do not have programmatic political parties, individuals and their supporters tend to want ownership to the title ‘opposition’ and some even prefer to distinguish themselves as the ‘genuine opposition.'”

“The role of the opposition in a democracy includes demanding accountability and safeguarding democratic institutions when they are in or out of power. A political rival or a political enemy is not necessarily the opposition,” Calimbahin told Rappler.

Must Read

Rappler Talk: If Sara Duterte is not the opposition, who is?

Rappler Talk: If Sara Duterte is not the opposition, who is?

Salgado believes the country needs someone else to fill the shoes of an opposition leader.

“The figure we need is a leader who is not really thinking about the elections in 2028, but someone who stands on clear principles and values, who really talks about issues that matter to the people,” Salgado said.

‘Uniteam ended after the elections’

Duterte’s resignation from the Marcos Cabinet was not a surprise for political observers. While she did not have a public spat with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., tension was palpable between their political circles.

Trouble for the Uniteam electoral coalition became public in 2023, when long-time Duterte ally, former president, and now Pampanga 2nd District Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was stripped of a senior deputy speakership role at the lower chamber. There were talks of impeaching House Speaker Martin Romualdez and Arroyo, who was gunning for the speakership role at the beginning of Marcos’ administration, was blamed for it.

It all became clearer in a “prayer rally” held in January 2024, where the Vice President’s family members took turns attacking Marcos. Her brother, Davao City Mayor Sebastian “Baste” Duterte, called on Marcos to resign while their father, former president Rodrigo Duterte, cussed at Marcos and repeatedly called him a “drug addict.” Sara, who was in attendance, apparently laughed at her father’s statements as pointed out by First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos. (READ: Uniteam divided: The politicians in opposing Sunday rallies in Manila and Davao)

Why the sudden barrage of attacks? The government had expressed openness to cooperating with the International Criminal Court’s probe into Duterte’s drug war, where the ex-chief executive is the subject of investigation.

Must Read

ICC case exposes Duterte’s desperation, Marcos’ indecisiveness

ICC case exposes Duterte’s desperation, Marcos’ indecisiveness

While her family was hurling attacks against the President, Vice President Duterte remained silent.

For political analyst Ronald Llamas, the Vice President could no longer sustain her post in the Marcos Cabinet.

“Keeping her role in the Cabinet would be unsustainable,” Llamas, who had served as presidential political adviser to the late president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, told Rappler.

“Her lame excuse was she was not able to speak to her brother who was calling for the resignation of her boss and her allies – from [Davao del Norte 1st District Representative Pantaleon Alvarez], to her father Digong, to [the] leaders of PDP Laban – they are already calling for the downfall of the president. How can you manage that?”

But it was Sara who later admitted that the Uniteam – the electoral coalition she and Marcos led during the campaign for the 2022 national elections – was all a farce.

“The defining statement of Vice President Sara Duterte was when she said the Uniteam ended as early as after the elections, so there’s no coming back from that and I think, in a way, they know that the ICC is coming sooner than later,” Llamas said.

Consolidating power?

It was the Duterte family who was instrumental in helping bring back the Marcoses into the political spotlight. But now, it is the Duterte family that must try to hold on to power.

Political analyst Arjan Aguirre said that Duterte’s resignation will allow her to “muster enough resources or perhaps know who her real allies are for her to mount a solid political operation for her presidential ambitions in 2028.”

Analysts are in agreement that the move to step down would enable the Duterte clan to get some time to regroup and consolidate.

“They need to fix their political narrative…. Vice President Sara Duterte’s political narrative is neither here nor there. She attends the ouster rallies against PBBM but at the same time, she’s still a member of the official family,” Llamas said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Since last year, many lawmakers have jumped ship from the Duterte-led PDP-Laban (now, just PDP) for either Marcos’ Partido Federal ng Pilipinas or Romualdez-led Lakas-CMD amid Romualdez’s show of power at the House.

On June 25, Duterte said her brothers, Baste and Davao City 1st District Representative Paolo “Pulong” Duterte, along with their father, will seek Senate seats in the upcoming 2025 polls.

It should be noted that this move falls under the Dutertes’ pattern of throwing off guard their rivals and the public by leaving them guessing about their next political move. Akbayan called the supposed senatorial bid of the three Dutertes the “last gasp by a faltering old man and his offspring to cling to political relevance.”

Must Read

2025 in the air: Revisiting the guessing game the Dutertes put up every election cycle

2025 in the air: Revisiting the guessing game the Dutertes put up every election cycle

However, the climb to be relevant again means assigning someone to be the face of the Dutertes. Salgado said the clan is in need of a “rallying figure” for the upcoming polls as their political power diminishes.

“It looks like her father may not be that kind of figure now because of the changing situation and I think they want to present a new face…someone who can relate to a younger demographic. But again, we have to ask them, what are [your] values or principles? Right now, what is clear is [that they are] anti-administration, anti-Marcos,” Salgado said.

The opposition’s ‘Tres Marias’

Akbayan president Rafaela David said that branding the Dutertes as the opposition is a “false choice.”

“This is not about anything that’s important to the Filipinos or the issues of ordinary Filipinos. This is really about personal interest,” David said in a recent Rappler Talk episode.

There are many calls for the “traditional” opposition to step up, and the rift between the Marcos and Duterte clans presents a window of opportunity. But after years of bearing the brunt of ex-president Duterte’s attacks, what the public knows as traditional opposition figures are still in the stages of rebuilding.

“It would be hard for them to recover,” Salgado said, noting that the traditional opposition politicians only expanded under the Noynoy Aquino presidency.

“Knowing the nature of Philippine politics, politicians go to whoever becomes president so they’re practically decimated. How do you rebuild? That would be the greatest challenge for them…to reinvent their approach to organizing.”

In the 2019 midterm elections, none of the eight opposition bets who ran under the LP’s Otso Diretso won a seat in the Senate. In the 2022 national elections, only one member of the opposition slate secured a seat at the upper chamber – Senator Risa Hontiveros.

David noted that among their learnings in the last elections was the need to prepare early and strengthen their political narrative. “People can’t just see us as a group who would always complain.”

The LP already named some of their Senate bets in February, which include former senators Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan and Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino, and veteran human rights lawyer Chel Diokno.

Llamas pointed out that the opposition also has “three Marias” who deserve to be called true opposition leaders: Hontiveros, former vice president Leni Robredo, and De Lima.

“They aren’t just a different set of personalities. They have differences [versus the administration] in terms of principles, platform, and vision from the incumbent. That’s what it means to be a true opposition figure.”

Hontiveros has been at the forefront of Senate investigations into Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators and has been vocal about China’s bullying in the West Philippine Sea, and on issues involving women’s rights, gender equality, and children’s welfare. She led the Senate probe into the allegations of abuse against doomsday preacher Apollo Quiboloy and his Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

De Lima has been a longtime champion of human rights and foe of extrajudicial killings – advocacies that led to the filing of drug charges during the Duterte administration, and her nearly seven-year detention. She was finally cleared of all the drug charges this June.

Robredo was the de facto opposition leader during the Duterte administration and she spoke up on issues that the then-chief executive kept silent about: China actions in the West Philippine Sea, the drug war deaths and police abuse, among other issues. She recently made headlines over her plan to run for Naga City mayor in 2025, much to the dismay of those who want her to consider a Senate run. She stayed out of the political space after losing the presidency to Marcos in 2022, although the thousands of volunteers that helped out during her campaign are still waiting for her.

“If the opposition can harness the pink wave they had in 2022, I think they will be a viable opposition,” Llamas said, adding they can be a “very compelling alternative” in the next polls. He was referring to the historic volunteer-driven campaign that marked Robredo’s presidential bid.

“Her loss was not insignificant. She had more than 15 million votes – that was the number of votes PNoy and even Digong got when they won the presidency.” – with reports from Dwight de Leon and Bonz Magsambol/


(Quotes in Filipino were translated into English and some were shortened for brevity.)

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Face, Happy, Head


Kaycee Valmonte

Kaycee Valmonte is a multimedia reporter who covers politics in the House of Representatives and public health.