Sara Duterte

[Newsstand] What’s next for VP Sara: Go Macapagal or go Arroyo?

John Nery

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[Newsstand] What’s next for VP Sara: Go Macapagal or go Arroyo?
Now that she has passed the point of no return, which options will the Vice President choose? The one from 2001, or the one from 1957?

The future of the Duterte political brand rests on the 2028 vote, and the run-up to it. 

Davao City itself remains the family stronghold. The former president’s second son Baste Duterte easily won election as mayor in 2022, his vote total more than eight times that of his closest challenger. Rep. Pulong Duterte, who cruised to victory with 15 times more votes than the next candidate, is poised to win a third term in 2025. And Vice President Sara Duterte herself won the vice presidential contest in the city with 10% more votes than the mayor-elect; her vote total was 55 times that of the vice presidential candidate with the second highest number of votes. (Interestingly, the “people’s justice” constituency of Sen. Raffy Tulfo in Davao City was not enough to place him in the first 12 Senate slots; he came in 13th.)

So mark the city safe for the Dutertes. But the rest of the country? Much will depend on what happens in the next few years: if the doomsday cult leader Apollo Quiboloy is extradited to the United States, if the International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant against former president Rodrigo Duterte, if an armed encounter in the West Philippine Sea hardens Philippine public opinion against China, if the scandals involving Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators and scammy Pharmally come home to roost in Davao.

It is in the best interest of the Duterte family and their allies, then, to ensure that VP Sara becomes the next president. That is how I understand her resignation from the Cabinet, and from the influential position of education secretary. (The Department of Education is the country’s largest bureaucracy.) She means to do all she can to prepare herself to succeed Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Four types of succession

But consider the vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency. History tells us there are at least four types of succession. 

The first path is the one contemplated by our constitutions: The president dies in office. Three found themselves traveling down this path: Sergio Osmeña succeeded Manuel Quezon in 1944, Elpidio Quirino succeeded Manuel Roxas in 1948, Carlos Garcia succeeded Ramon Magsaysay in 1957.

The second trail is that blazed by Diosdado Macapagal, the first vice president elected from another party that was different from the president’s. Several months after the plane crash that claimed Magsaysay’s life, Garcia of the Nationalistas was elected president in his own right, in November 1957; for the first time, however, a president’s election mandate fell below a majority. Macapagal, because he was a Liberal, was shut out of the Cabinet. He spent the next four years essentially campaigning throughout the country, and handily beat Garcia for the presidency in 1961.

The third path is the one that Joseph Estrada defined. While he belonged to a party different from that of Fidel Ramos, he accepted Ramos’ offer to include him in government through a presidential task force tailored to Estrada’s public persona as a tough-talking crimebuster. While he was not politically aligned with Ramos, he remained a popular part of the president’s official family until the end of their term.

The fourth is that which unmade Estrada, and made Gloria Arroyo. A People-Powered uprising and the withdrawal of support from the military leadership forced Estrada out of office and installed Arroyo as president in 2001.

Which path will VP Sara choose?

Based on a reading of the many comments from Duterte supporters on social media, it seems that a good number would favor what I would call the Arroyo option. I do not mean to suggest that Gloria Arroyo, then the vice president, worked actively behind the scenes in early 2001 to undermine President Estrada; I only mean to say that the idea, held by quite a number of supporters of both the former president and his daughter, that Marcos Jr. can be forced to resign and that Sara Duterte can then replace him, is not fiction but rather fantasy fed on the events of 2001. 

That’s the underlying scenario behind former speaker Pantaleon Alvarez’s seditious appeal to the military to withdraw its support from President Marcos Jr. It’s a scenario nourished on regret and resentment, based on the (correct) assumption that he would not have been elected if he had not teamed up with Duterte. You can sense this skewed theme of false nostalgia run through the comments like an electric current: “She should have been president all along.”

But can the Vice President and her allies engineer the ouster of another Marcos? This seems unlikely, if only because the Vice President’s father showed exactly how powerful the presidency is, despite the additional safeguards built into the 1987 Constitution. If he can brazen it out (the Rodrigo Duterte legacy), a president can outlast any rival.

In other words, the moral standards or the public virtues we naturally expect of any president are not hard-wired into the system; a president acting exactly like Rodrigo Duterte can throw all that aside, and he will get away with it. Force the Supreme Court to impeach a chief justice without the benefit of impeachment, detain an incumbent senator for almost her entire term on trumped-up charges, impose martial law in Mindanao without meeting constitutional requirements, threaten opponents with mythical narco-lists and lethal red tags, demonize journalists, and so on, ad nauseam.

Does Marcos Jr. have the appetite for such a political war of attrition? That remains to be seen, but it is important to remember the lesson we learned from Duterte: The presidency has the capacity to wage that kind of war.

Going Macapagal

A more realistic reading of the situation suggests that VP Sara will likely follow the example of Cong Dadong, the “poor boy from Lubao,” who is not coincidentally the father of her close political ally, former president and former speaker Gloria Arroyo.

Sara resigned to campaign full time for the presidency. 

She is now unburdened of the responsibilities of education secretary, for which she was never really qualified in the first place. The same day she resigned, the other main news story about Philippine education was yet more confirmation of its dismal state: In the 2022 cycle of the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, the Philippines ranked in the bottom four in the world in “creative thinking.”

This is the sort of news that will haunt any education secretary thinking of a presidential run; by the time VP Sara runs for the presidency in 2028, she would have distanced herself enough from such depressing statistics. (And if the work of the Second Congressional Commission on Education actually bears fruit by then, she can point to her participation, non-consequential but real, in the commission’s initial stages.)

She is now free from the need to defend any policy of the Marcos Jr. administration, or at least to keep silent, and free to criticize it on the issues that matter most to the Dutertes and their allies: engagement with the ICC, defense of the West Philippine Sea, peace talks with the communist insurgency

She is now at liberty to test the one message of her father’s that never resonated with the public, the one theme he couldn’t sell: that our future lies in a closer alliance with Beijing

Coming out this early, and this unequivocally, carries a serious risk. If a somewhat cloying reticence propelled her to the top of the pre-election surveys before allying with Marcos Jr., how will undisguised ambition affect her standings? That calls for all kinds of creative thinking. –

Veteran journalist John Nery is a Rappler columnist, editorial consultant, and program host. In the Public Square streams on Rappler platforms every Wednesday at 8 pm.

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