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MANILA, Philippines – In 2018, then-president Rodrigo Duterte gave his personal insight into the capabilities of his daughter, who was Davao City mayor at the time.
Speaking at a conference in Manila, Duterte said business leaders should “be careful” of Sara Duterte, even as he boasted about her physical and political strength – that she can do everything from mauling a sheriff to ousting a House speaker.
“Tingnan mo ang sheriff binugbog (See, she even mauled a sheriff). Where can you find a mayor mauling a sheriff in front of everybody on TV?… Talagang ano ‘yan si Inday (Inday really is something). Be careful of that woman. She can oust even a Speaker. She operated in Davao,” Duterte said, drawing laughter from the audience.
Duterte was referring to the House shakeup in 2018 that saw Davao del Norte Representative Pantaleon Alvarez replaced by the former president, Pampanga 2nd District Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Sara’s close ally.
Four years later, Inday was elected as the second highest official of the land. She had been leading the 2022 presidential surveys to replace her father but opted to run for the vice presidential race, and to be the running mate of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Observers believe that Inday’s youth – she is 45 – would help her in a widely anticipated presidential bid in 2028. On top of that, of course, is her popularity. Based on surveys, she is the most appreciated and trusted public official in the land.
Sara got 32,208,417 votes, or 61.53% of the total votes cast in the vice presidential race in the 2022 elections. She got more votes than Marcos who got 31,629,783.
‘Declaration of war’
Sara is perceived to be tough in defense of the poor – an image that stuck after that punching incident in her home city in 2011, when she, as mayor, stopped the demolition of an urban poor settlement. She has carried on the Duterte brand of toughness and candor – she speaks her mind and does not hide anger or displeasure.
So on June 5, people who have been closely watching the Vice President were not surprised when she deliberately skipped mentioning Marcos’ middle name as she acknowledged his presence during her speech at the “Pasidungog,” an event intended to pay tribute to the stakeholders of the Office of the Vice President (OVP).
“Hindi ko na banggitin ang middle initial niya…. Apo, alam mo ‘yan na mahal kita (I won’t mention his middle initial. You know that I love you),” Sara said, without explaining this action.
The President’s middle name is Romualdez. He and House Speaker Martin Romualdez are first cousins.
Weeks before the OVP event, Sara resigned from the ruling Lakas-CMD – the party that served as her vehicle to the vice presidency and which is being led by Romualdez – slamming the “political toxicity” and “political power play” in the House. This was after Gloria Arroyo’s demotion from senior deputy speaker to deputy speaker – a development that sparked rumors of an Arroyo-led House coup that the former president denied.
Arroyo is a key ally of Sara and played a pivotal role in her vice presidential bid. According to political sources privy to negotiations then, Arroyo herself reached out to old allies and convinced them to back both Sara and Marcos in 2022.
Political analyst and Ateneo de Manila University professor Arjan Aguirre said that Sara’s resignation from Lakas-CMD was a “declaration of war.”
“This resignation is a declaration of war. ‘I have nothing to do with Lakas. I have my own party,’” Aguirre said in an interview on Thursday, June 29. He added that this gives Sara more legroom to form new alliances since she is the vice president and an “ally” of the President.
Sara had consistently shunned talks of fissures within Uniteam, which carried the Marcos-Duterte tandem. She had said that the Marcos administration remained “stable and strong.”
“It has my all-out support and the support of the majority of the Filipino people,” she said of the Marcos government, in which she also serves as education secretary and co-chairperson of the NTF-ELCAC.
Aguirre observed that this is apparently part of a Sara Duterte strategy to not overshadow the President, who also has his strong mass base. This also explains her “careful dealings” with the Marcos administration.
“She will not be stupid enough to feel like a president. That’s why she is very careful in her dealings with the Marcos government because any movement and indication, Marcos himself can use this, that si Sara Duterte nagmamadaling maging presidente (that Sara is in a hurry to be president.) Ang mga voters nasa psyche na nila ayaw nila sa mga nagfi-feeling presidente (It is in the voters’ psyche that they don’t like people who feel and act like they were president),” Aguirre said.
Such “careful” actions, however, are also seen as a hindrance to her performance as a Cabinet member of the Marcos administration.
Marcos appointed Sara as his education secretary even though he knew – and even made public during the campaign – that she wanted the defense portfolio. The two jobs were polar opposites but Sara accepted the position without any complaints, at least based on her public statements. Amid observations that she had been shortchanged, she said she was grateful for the education portfolio.
“Seeing the way things are at the moment, I expect that people who want to see the new administration fail will fabricate intrigues about my loyalty and the DND (Department of National Defense) position to break the UniTeam,” Sara said.
Past events would show the importance of military support in the survival of any administration. The President’s father and namesake, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, was ousted as the military withdrew support from him. Joseph Estrada suffered the same fate. The Armed Forces of the Philippines – composed of the Philippine Army, Philippine Navy, and Philippine Air Force – is under the DND.
A year into office, Sara seemed to adopt her father’s populist style of leadership, saying what people want to hear and avoiding issues that people don’t want to discuss – minus the expletives and crude, misogynist jokes.
While she has weighed in on the Afghan refugees issue and has been red-tagging groups critical of government, she has been silent on key issues related to her job – education issues that were left behind by the previous DepEd administration under her father. She had a lukewarm response when it was discovered that DepEd laptops were being sold in the market.
The DepEd under her watch, however, is partly to blame since there was an overlap in the contract implementation. Although her two high ranking DepEd officials have resigned, she remained mum on the issue.
Aguirre said this was apparently something that Sara learned from her father. “It’s deliberate and part of her strategy. She learned so well in the six years of rule ng daddy niya (of her father’s six-year rule) to be careful which issues to touch on.”
He said that Sara’s performance so far – as vice president and DepEd chief – pales in comparison to her work as mayor of Davao City.
“When she was mayor of Davao City, we all know that just like her dad, she was also delivering to her constituents. She was able to make Davao City, let’s say, a city that is progressive. But when she took over or when she was given this role at the national level, she wasn’t that impressive,” Aguirre said.
“This is just her first year. But what I would like to mention here is that this is supposed to be her year where she’s supposed to lay down the foundations, foundations that would allow her to have this lasting impact on her offices that are occupied,” he added.
What Sara has brought to the DepEd is her tough-talking leadership style, with a particular focus on progressive groups. She had traded barbs with the country’s largest teachers’ group, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), as she accused them of being a “lover of the useless ideologies” espoused by insurgent groups.
Sara has made it clear that during her term, she would go after organizations she deems harmful to students. She has been relentlessly red-tagging critics.
Progressive groups gave her DepEd leadership a failing mark a year into office. Her critics said that multiple issues concerning teachers and students were not prioritized, including the safe reopening of schools, boosting the budget for the education sector, providing sufficient learning and teaching resources, and overhauling the K to 12 curriculum, among others.
Her tall order of a mandatory return to face-to-face classes was met with criticism due to lack of health protocols in place and the long-standing problem of inadequate school facilities. This didn’t discourage her though – a manifestation of what she wants, she gets.
Political analyst and University of the Philippines professor Ela Atienza said that Sara’s handicap in running DepEd is not only because of the size of the sector she’s overseeing, but also her lack of experience in the area of education. She said it’s difficult to “shine” in big agencies like DepEd since actions will not have an immediate impact on the system.
“She’s not competent. She’s not known for this particular area. And definitely, the DepEd is so big so it’s difficult actually to shine in this area because changes are incremental. If you tweak the curriculum, you won’t be able to see changes in learning outcomes, right? It’s a difficult position to be in,” Atienza said in a phone interview with Rappler on Thursday, June 22.
The soft Inday
While she is seen as a tough woman, the education secretary has a soft, maternal side, as seen in an event in Metro Manila in December 2022, when she almost knelt on the floor to help tie the shoelaces of a child. While doing this, she asked the student about his message to his classmates for Christmas. The student replied, “Ang mensahe ko po sa kanila para sa Pasko ay mag-aral po sila nang mabuti (My message for them this Christmas is to study hard).”
When Marcos named her as education chief, critics questioned her qualifications for the job. After all, leading the DepEd is not an easy task. The Philippines, a population of almost 114 million, is suffering from a learning crisis – a problem she inherited from her predecessors, and which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for Marcos, Duterte was a perfect fit because Sara is not only a longtime public servant but also a mother. Sara has three young children – Stonefish, Sharky and Stingray – with husband Manases “Mans” Reyes Carpio.
The “maternal” Sara image is visible in public events where she would read books with children, visit classrooms, and mingle with grade school students.
Since she became vice president, there have been instances when the “feminine” Sara would emerge. In December 2022, a photo showing her all glammed in makeup and wearing a crop top that read “Stay Weird,” paired with jeans, aviator shades, and a flower crown to complete the outdoor concert look, went viral.
In another viral video, while speaking at a DepEd event, she paused in the middle of her speech as sunlight struck her skin. “Excuse me, I’m sorry. Hindi ako nakapaglagay ng sunblock. Wait lang (I forgot to apply sunblock. Wait a minute),” she said.
Atienza said that this seemed to be a deliberate attempt of the Vice President’s team to show her soft side.
“If we’re to notice, there were efforts to soften her image. It seems like they want to portray her as the polished version of her father. Aside from being a woman, she’s also tough but she’s also more polished, more acceptable. She can be charming if she would like to be. She can turn on the charm. She can also be motherly, right?” Atienza said.
While the next presidential poll is still five years away, Aguirre has this unsolicited advice to Inday Sara and her supporters: “She should listen to her supporters, not her controlling the supporters. Ito ang challenge ko sa kaniyang supporters: tulungan nila si Sara Duterte (This is the challenge to her supporters: help Sara Duterte).”
Will Sara be able to sustain the hype until 2028? – Rappler.com