Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

From GMA to Sara Duterte: The ties that bind

Bea Cupin

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From GMA to Sara Duterte: The ties that bind
The two women share a number of things in common: presidential fathers, ambition, and status as centers of political power

MANILA, Philippines – Long, long before she became President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s “secret weapon” in his frequent visits overseas, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had become, and remains, a crucial ally and not-so-secret weapon of another presidential child: Vice President Sara Duterte.

Arroyo, herself the daughter of a former president, has been a close consultant and friend of the former Davao City mayor. Their first and most prominent team-up happened in 2018, when they tag-teamed with then-Ilocos Norte governor Imee Marcos to oust then-speaker Pantaleon Alvarez.

Their close ties are in the spotlight once again, after Arroyo was demoted from senior deputy speaker to deputy speaker of the 19th Congress – a move that surprised even some members of Lakas-CMD, the dominant party in the House of Representatives.

Two days later, on May 19, Duterte announced her “irrevocable resignation” from Lakas-CMD, the party that served as her vehicle to the vice presidency.

LAKAS ALLIES. Speaker Martin Romualdez swears in Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as Senior Deputy Speaker in the early months of the 19th Congress.
Entry to national politics

Arroyo is chairman emeritus, and previously president emeritus, of Lakas-CMD, a party that has produced two presidents: Arroyo and the late Fidel V. Ramos. Duterte joined the party in November 2021 and was immediately declared co-chairperson, sharing the title with Senator Bong Revilla.

Both Marcos and Duterte’s overwhelming victory in the 2022 elections is, no doubt, thanks to the consolidation of power in Uniteam, a coalition that included Marcos’ Partido Federal ng Pilipinas, Lakas-CMD, Duterte’s regional party Hugpong ng Pagbabago, and Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino, a party founded by former president Joseph Estrada.

The coalition brought together the biggest – and often infamous – names in Philippine politics, and Arroyo was seen as pivotal in its formation.

Even before the coalition was formalized during a Sofitel Philippine Plaza event, Arroyo had met with Duterte for “further consultations.”

The meeting happened in July 2021, before any of the eventual presidential aspirants announced their 2022 plans. Duterte was then the leading presidential candidate for the 2022 polls with a 28% voter preference, according to a June 2021 Pulse Asia survey. Her eventual 2022 partner, now-President Marcos, then had a paltry 13% voter preference, according to the same survey.

Things moved quickly from October 2021 to November 2021, when Duterte filed her candidacy to seek a third consecutive and final mayoral term in Davao City, left Hugpong, joined Lakas-CMD, substituted to run for vice president, then joined Hugpong again.

It was a strategy right out of the Rodrigo Duterte playbook – only it was a different political giant whom Sara Duterte was apparently consulting with and listening to.

2022 run

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story made an error in Rodrigo Duterte’s term of office. This has been corrected.

Rodrigo Duterte, president from 2016 to 2022, had wanted Sara to run for president. She was, after all, the one child her father “truly relied on,” according to Earl Parreño, who wrote a biography on President Duterte.

But when it came to how she would respond to the clamor for a Sara Duterte presidency, she apparently paid no attention to her father’s wishes.

Instead of running under the then-ruling PDP-Laban, Duterte chose Arroyo’s Lakas-CMD. Instead of Malacañang, she gunned for the second-highest post in the land, in the process helping secure a win for Marcos.

The logic was simple: consolidate forces and bag a sure win. Had both Marcos and Duterte run for president, the 2022 race would have turned into a strong multi-way battle between the two and other condenders, including then-vice president Leni Robredo and then-Manila mayor Isko Moreno.

According to political sources privy to negotiations then, Arroyo herself reached out to old allies – even those whose personal histories are scarred by the first Marcos president’s Martial Law – and convinced them to back both Duterte and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in 2022. It was a cashing in of old favors, in a way – Arroyo, in her decade or so as president, had proved reliable and invaluable to many political clans. Even as her political star stopped shining as bright, Arroyo kept and nurtured those ties.

Arroyo campaigned for both Marcos and Duterte, too, although only Sara showed up in Pampanga during Arroyo’s birthday celebration cum political rally there in April 2022.

GMA’S BIRTHDAY. Sara Duterte attends Gloria Macapacal-Arroyo’s pre-birthday celebration in Pampanga on April 4, 2022.

When the Uniteam tandem won in the May 2022 polls, Arroyo had the speakership in mind – she would confirm as much a year later, in the wake of her House demotion and rumors that accompanied this sudden development.

Arroyo would eventually relent after seeing the “wisdom embedded” in having Martin Romualdez, her party-mate and mentee, as Speaker. Romualdez is the cousin of President Marcos through his mother, former first lady Imelda Romualdez-Marcos.

Romualdez would also become Sara Duterte’s co-campaign manager, alongside HNP’s Claude Bautista.

The astute politician that she is, Arroyo has still kept close ties with the elder Duterte. The former president, in fact, never begrudged Arroyo for his daughter’s puzzling decision and said, without substantiating, that this was the Marcos camp’s decision.

In January 2023, Rodrigo Duterte became the “adopted son” of Arroyo’s home province of Pampanga. It was among Duterte’s few public events since stepping down in office.

Close, but discreet

Although their ties are strong, neither Duterte nor Arroyo have said much about their relationship nor each other, really, save for the few and far apart public statements they’ve released in support of one another.

Following a successful coup against Alvarez in the House, Duterte said little, save for congratulating Arroyo and calling her a “strong leader.”

In that heist, three then-current and former presidential daughters – Sara Duterte, Gloria Arroyo, and then-Ilocos Norte governor Imee Marcos – banded together to finally kick out Alvarez.

All had different but intersecting interests: Duterte had both personal and political beef with Alvarez, then-governor Marcos wanted to boot out then-majority leader Rodolfo Fariñas, while Arroyo was seen as a figure who could bring together a disgruntled House.

Duterte herself has yet to explicit comment on the demotion of Arroyo in the House, even as Marcos has downplayed the gravity political movements at the Batasang Pambansa.

But true to form, Arroyo has found a way to communicate – albeit very subtlety – how things are going.

On Friday, May 19, perhaps in a show of the strength of their friendship amid the upheaval in Batasan, Arroyo posted a photo of herself standing beside the Vice President. The photo, taken hours after Duterte announced her exit from Lakas, also shows business tycoon Manny Pangilinan, San Pedro Mayor Art Mercado, Bong Santamaria, and Pearl Viernes. 

According to Arroyo, they gathered for a lunch hosted by Pangilinan for the five birthday celebrants. Arroyo celebrated her birthday on April 5, while Duterte turns a year older on May 31.

‘BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION’. Arroyo posts a photo with Duterte after lunch hosted by business tycoon Manny Pangilinan. Photo from Arroyo’s Facbeook page

As was the case in the lead-up to the 2022 polls, Arroyo is, again, the knot that binds the many different strings that make up the running coalition.

She has close ties with both Rodrigo and Sara Duterte, as well as other key officials. She has political machinery behind her – not just through Lakas-CMD, but from the relationships she’s maintained through the years. She’s one of the President’s apparent favorites, and prominent companion when meeting fellow world leaders and business officials overseas.

But what happens when the knot is forced to unravel? –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.