Rodrigo Duterte

[Newsstand] Duterte lost control of substitution circus he started

John Nery
[Newsstand] Duterte lost control of substitution circus he started

Nico Villarete

The factionalism in the Duterte ruling coalition reflects the different political alignments that came together to help Davao's longtime mayor become president in 2016. But that same factionalism has now put President Duterte's own post-presidency plans in some jeopardy.

In the final twist to a long-running and melodramatic plot, President Rodrigo Duterte sent a representative to the Commission on Elections Monday afternoon to file his substitute candidacy for senator. But the politician who created the modern substitution circus with his presidential candidacy in 2015 seems to have lost control of the now-chaotic circus in 2021. 

Last Saturday, November 13, after a series of withdrawals and new party affiliations and substitutions among members of the ruling coalition that occupied media attention and confused the President’s supporters, Mr. Duterte issued a threat to his own daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.

He said he had not been consulted about his daughter’s decision to run as the vice presidential running mate of ex-senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and in protest would run for vice president himself. He also said he could not support Marcos – the same politician he said more than once would have allowed him to retire from the presidency if he had only been elected vice president – because the son and namesake of the late dictator was “pro-communist.”

The President’s end-of-day decision to run for senator suggests that 1) he was not able to convince his daughter to run for President; 2) he has found a position that will help generate electoral support for both his daughter and his own candidate for president, Senator Bong Go; and 3) he will continue to have some leverage over Marcos and the Gloria Arroyo faction supporting Marcos.

But it is difficult to see the final twist as a complete triumph for Duterte. In 2015-2016, he successfully used the substitution loophole to draw expanded media attention to his candidacy and to cement his reputation as a political maverick with a gift for “strategy.”

In 2021-2022, he will have to reckon with the Marcoses’ large social media following and fabled wealth, and with Arroyo’s political experience and loyalty among politicians. While it is within the realm of possibility that he can influence the election commissioners, all but one of whom he appointed, to disqualify Marcos on the charge of moral turpitude because of the failure to file income tax returns, he might also want to wait to see if Go, who is trailing badly in the surveys, will gain any traction in the presidential race.

Rules of thumb

How do we make sense of the substitution circus? We can make use of the following as rules of thumb.

1. Political players are in fact used to negotiating electoral positions. The difference is that under Duterte, these negotiations are taking place in view of the public. 

Unless political rivals are irrevocably hostile to each other, they can and usually do enter into negotiations about which positions they and their allied candidates can run for. The most famous example in recent history is Cory Aquino and Doy Laurel agreeing to run on a common ticket in the Snap Election of 1986. 

Sometimes negotiations take place after the initial filing of certificates of candidacy. A very recent example is Imelda Marcos withdrawing her candidacy for governor of Ilocos Norte in 2019, followed by erstwhile rival Rudy Farinas withdrawing his own. But the (presumed) negotiations took place in private. 

In 2021, we have the spectacle of national candidates publicly negotiating for electoral positions. The fact that President Duterte threatened on Saturday to run for vice president himself, to force his daughter to rescind her agreement with Marcos and run for president herself, is only the latest proof of these public negotiations. To an electorate not used to this sometimes bare-knuckle bargaining, the very public-ness of the negotiations adds to the political chaos.

2. These are taking place in view of the public because part of the Duterte political belief system is that the usual rules do not apply to President Duterte.

This kind of transgressive behavior has been associated with President Duterte ever since he was a city prosecutor in Davao City. As he admitted once without any prompting, he used to “plant evidence and intrigue” against suspects. His decades-long reputation for getting “results” was based in large part on this rule-breaking behavior.

His tumultuous presidency has strengthened his rule-breaking reputation. In many ways, he has demonstrated that the usual rules do not apply to him and his favored people, such as policemen involved in “nanlaban” killings in the so-called war on drugs.

Another important part of that political belief system is that President Duterte is authentic, “totoong tao,” and is candid to a fault. Doing something in public would be something that “only” Duterte would do.

Less strategic

3. But other politicians in the President’s circles of influence do not have his political gifts, and have used the same substitution loophole less strategically than Duterte. 

In the same way that President Duterte’s once-untouchable social media influencers could break the script – in what disinformation scholars Jonathan Corpus Ong and Jason Cabanes called “volatile virality” – the President’s political allies have overused the substitution script to such an extent that the messaging has been scrambled, and their supporters hear only noise.

In Cagayan de Oro, one of the President’s social media handlers in 2016, Pompee La Viña, inexplicably used the substitution loophole to surface as a candidate for mayor for the second time, to no discernible effect. And in Manila, retired general and active red-tagger Antonio Parlade Jr. used substitution to declare his presidential candidacy on Monday, November 15, (and to declare war on the President’s close aide, presidential candidate Bong Go).

These have blunted the clever agenda-setting possibilities of the substitution strategy, and have also complicated the President’s own position. Parlade’s broadside against Go, for instance, can only undermine Go’s own presidential prospects.

4. These other politicians belong to different factions in the ruling coalition.

It has long been apparent that the Duterte ruling coalition is made up of different factions. The ouster of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez in 2018 was the event that showed clearly where the factions stood. 

It seems clear that the Arroyo faction has brokered an arrangement with both the junior Marcos and the junior Duterte. The Go faction, allied with the Al Cusi wing of the PDP-Laban, is the closest to the President – still the vital source of political power. But its closeness, and especially Go’s son-like devotion to Duterte, has also created a backlash among the other factions. They see Go as controlling access to the President.

(The use of “faction” to describe the different political alignments is more accurate than “party.” In many instances, it is the political dynasties that actually serve as the real parties; the political parties are merely electoral vehicles.)

The factionalism in the Duterte ruling coalition reflects the different political alignments that came together to help Davao’s longtime mayor become president in 2016. But that same factionalism has now put President Duterte’s own post-presidency plans in some jeopardy. –

Veteran journalist John Nery is a columnist and editorial consultant of Rappler.