Sara Duterte

Sara Duterte gives up bid for confidential funds: Mere political strategy?

Bonz Magsambol

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Sara Duterte gives up bid for confidential funds: Mere political strategy?

Illustration by Marian Hukom

It is unprecedented for Sara Duterte to just drop her request for confidential funds. In the past months, she would staunchly defend the controversial allocation.

First of 2 parts

MANILA, Philippines – Before the budget proposals of the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the Department of Education (DepEd) were tackled at the Senate plenary on November 9, a calm and composed Sara Duterte walked along the halls of the upper chamber and even gave reporters a flying kiss as she approached them.

Unbothered by the controversies surrounding her use and request for confidential funds, Duterte was expected to continue her defense of her request for P650 million in confidential funds for her offices, the OVP and the DepEd. Over a month earlier, on October 26, the House of Representatives thumbed down her confidential fund request.

About 20 minutes into the Senate plenary deliberation of the OVP’s 2024 budget, Senator Sonny Angara, who sponsored the OVP budget, announced something that took many by surprise: Duterte was dropping her P500-million confidential fund request for the OVP.

Angara read an OVP statement which also cited the reason behind the move – “it seemed to be divisive, and as the vice president, she swore an oath to keep the country peaceful and strong.”

Later, Duterte dropped her request for P150 million in DepEd confidential funds for 2024, too. She expressed hope that the amount would be reallocated to the agency’s learning programs to address the learning crisis.

Prior to that day, Duterte had staunchly defended herself amid criticism of the transfer of P125 million in confidential funds from the Office of the President (OP) to the OVP in December 2022, which the OVP spent in just 11 days. As if on combat mode, she had also labeled critics of her 2022 confidential fund as “enemies of peace.”

Duterte had traded barbs with her critics and resorted to personal attacks as she tried to veer attention from the heart of the issue – the legality of the December 2022 fund transfer, which is now the subject of a petition before the Supreme Court. The petitioners are seeking the return of the funds, citing the act as a “clear usurpation of power of Congress.” (READ: In confidential funds fiasco, Sara Duterte resorts to personal attacks vs critics)

‘Tone deaf’

How did the Vice President come up with the decision to drop her request for confidential funds?

In an interview with Rappler on Thursday, November 23, DepEd spokesman Michael Poa said that there were no other reasons other than what Duterte had already said – it was a divisive issue.

“There are news reports that said that it was because the House already stripped off her request. That is not true. The Vice President just said that it’s going to be divisive, then let’s just forego,” Poa said.

University of the Philippines professor Aries Arugay said that Duterte’s initial stance on the P125-million confidential fund issue showed her “political amateurism” and “insensitivity” to the history of corruption of public funds in the Philippines.

“She was tone deaf,” Arugay said, noting Duterte’s “political stubbornness to explain how the confidential funds were spent.” He said that the issue became divisive because Duterte was “unwilling to compromise.”

“She was cornered because her request was hugely unpopular,” he added.

The OVP confidential funds issue is indeed polarizing as public sentiment was on the critics’ side, as reflected in the surveys conducted during that period. Public outrage over the confidential funds mess pulled down Duterte’s public approval rating to 73% in September, an 11-percentage point drop compared to her 84% score in June.

‘Informed response’ to slipping approval rating

Given that, Ateneo de Manila professor Arjan Aguirre said he believes that in reality, Duterte dropped her request for the confidential funds to salvage her plummeting approval ratings.

“It is really meant to arrest her dwindling popularity brought by the endless battering from her detractors both from within and outside the coalition,” he said.

The tactic that the Duterte team employed was “simple and direct,” which according to Aguirre, means sending a message to people that the Vice President no longer wants confidential funds to “render the criticisms against her senseless and off tangent.” In effect to make them moot and academic, if not to mute them altogether.

Aguirre believes that the Vice President’s sudden change in tone was guided by “frequent constituent checking” or social surveys meant to keep track of any movement, swings, and perceptions of her.

“I’m also assuming that this is an informed response since all that is needed is to ask their supporters or constituents for information about what condition would likely make you still believe or trust VP Sara. I guess the sentiment here that they are getting is to drop the confidential funds, and drop her ambition,” he explained.

Responding to questions in a media interview on November 19, Duterte said she had “no ambition” to run for president in 2028, but said in the same interview, that her political path would depend on “God’s plan.”

“Hindi ko naman talaga ambisyon na tumakbo as vice president lalong-lalo na ang president, alam ‘nyo naman lahat ‘yan. Sinabi ko naman na ‘di ko gusto na tumakbo as president,” she said. (It was never really my ambition to run for vice president, moreso for president, you all know that. I never said that I wanted to run for president.)

But for Aguirre, this was just another political strategy. It also calls to mind her father’s own strategy when he sought the presidency in 2016. Until the very last minute, it was unclear if he was filing for his presidential candidacy and he kept on telling the public he just wanted to remain as Davao mayor.

“This is to turn the tables on her critics and rivals by making them appear that they are engaged in excessive politicking and that they are relentlessly going at her just to get more power within the coalition. This is really to make it appear that she is the bigger person in this power struggle by what the Duterte family is calling – oligarchs,” he said.

How OVP confidential funds are spent

When the issue on her use of P125-million confidential funds first surfaced in July, Duterte responded to questions from critics through mostly blanket denials and clap backs, claiming that the issue was being politicized.

At some point, the Vice President said that the controversial fund worth P125 million in 2022 was spent for “safe and secure” implementation of OVP’s projects, including tree planting, Libreng Sakay, peace-building, disaster response, and similar activities.

But her critics did not buy her explanation. They said that if the funds were used for OVP projects, then why did they have to be placed under confidential expense? Aside from the usual OVP projects, Duterte said that schools in the Philippines were confronted with problems on recruitment to local terrorist groups, which is why her office pursued intelligence activities to this end.

At the time, in July, Duterte’s approval rating based on the Pulse Asia survey was 84% – one percentage point higher than in the last survey held in March.

In the end, however, she abandoned her confidential fund requests for 2024, stung by the backlash that she, apparently, did not anticipate.

Future of ‘Uniteam’

The controversial funds debacle exposed the Vice President’s vulnerability to public opinion – unlike her father who got consistently high approval ratings throughout his term, regardless of all the controversial decisions and statements that he had made. The Vice President’s first taste of public outrage was enough to spark impeachment rumors against her.

House leaders denied that there were moves to impeach Duterte while President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. himself had said that he didn’t want the Vice President to be impeached. But the fact that there had been discussions, though informal, about that possibility in the lower chamber means that it is not far-fetched, especially as the Dutertes continue to lose supporters in the House of Representatives.

More and more lawmakers and local politicians who used to swear allegiance to the Dutertes have moved to Lakas-CMD, which is led by Speaker Martin Romualdez, the President’s cousin. In Davao Oriental, several prominent officials who used to be allies of the Duterte family took their oath as Lakas-CMD members.

When Marcos and Duterte won by a landslide in the 2022 national elections on a platform of “unity,” their supporters and even political onlookers wondered how long their political union would last. The confidential funds mess showed deepening cracks in the UniTeam or the alliance that supported the Bongbong Marcos-Duterte tandem in the 2022 elections.

Will these cracks run deep enough to put them on opposite sides of the political fence? (To be concluded) –

NEXT: Amid Uniteam power struggle, can ‘new opposition’ be in the works?

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.