Sara Duterte

[OPINION] Does VP Sara Duterte have a game plan?

Tom Villarin

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[OPINION] Does VP Sara Duterte have a game plan?
The Dutertes need a formidable champion to win as mayor of Davao City in 2025

With the Uniteam alliance between the Duterte and Marcos factions over, Vice President Sara Duterte’s political moves will require a defined strategy and agile tactics.

Her straightforward resignation as Department of Education (DepEd) secretary, and the swift acceptance by Malacañang, speaks volumes about the end of the alliance. To borrow the lyrics of the Jefferson Starship song Sara, “Go now, don’t look back, we’ve drawn the line. Move on, it’s no good to go back in time.”

If Sara Duterte will see it through as vice president in the post-Uniteam era, she would have to craft a multifaceted strategy that balances local power consolidation with national visibility, strategic alliances, and her relationship with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – which she needs to handle carefully.

Unfortunately, doing a balancing act, or even being adept at it, is not one of her strong suits.

Money for the long game

In January 2024, amid all the political intrigues in the Uniteam alliance, Sara Duterte announced in her hometown that she will be running in the 2025 elections, but did not specify for what post. Her resignation as DepEd secretary might be one of a two-step process in consolidating political capital and taking stock of her options, including running for mayor. 

The next question is: Does Sara Duterte have the stamina and fortitude to launch a presidential campaign for 2028? The Office of the Vice President (OVP) would likely get a smaller pie in 2025 and onwards – compared to its P2.3-billion budget in 2024. During the tenure of VP Leni Robredo, the highest budget that the OVP got was over P900 million.

In contrast, the budget of Davao City is sizable – and at Duterte’s disposal.

As mayor of Davao City, she would have over P12 billion in annual budget. For 2024, a total of P4,637,262,603 has been allocated for the City Mayor’s Office, the highest allocation among all departments of the local government unit. This allocation covers appropriations for general administration, peace and order, public safety programs, and the P400 million for its Lingap program. 

It will be recalled that Sara Duterte was stripped of her confidential funds of P650 million as vice president and DepEd Secretary. In 2023, the Commission on Audit reported that Duterte spent P125 million in confidential funds in 2022 in just 11 days.

Before that, Duterte’s preference for confidential funds as former mayor was flagged by COA. Annual audit reports from 2016 to 2022 showed Davao City allocating a staggering P2.697 billion in confidential funds or P460 million per year. This is where her political fortunes unraveled as public indignation over the confidential funds rose to a crescendo. 

If the vice president decides to give up the OVP and re-enter as a local political boss, this would be mainly to consolidate the Dutertes’ grip on their fiefdom.

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While some politicians close to the former president have been urging him to go run again for Davao City mayor in 2025 and eventually stage a Duterte-Duterte tandem for 2028, this seems like a long shot. But who knows? With the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation hanging over their heads like a Damocles sword, both father and daughter might end up together as political bosses of the city to garrison themselves – if and when the ICC prosecutes them. 

Alarm bells in Davao City

Reports suggesting that PBA party list Representative Migs Nograles, a lawyer, might challenge Mayor Sebastian “Baste” Duterte in 2025 have triggered alarm bells in the Duterte camp.

Nograles is no pushover, and their family still commands a machinery down to the barangays. With largesse from the ruling party, the possible disbandment of Task Force Davao, the creation of new security arrangements, and the exercise of presidential supervision over LGUs for the administration candidate, the Dutertes need a formidable champion to win as mayor. 

The dynamics of local politics can be unpredictable, and Sara Duterte’s next steps would likely be influenced by various factors, including political alliances, public sentiment, and strategic positioning within her party.

Of course, former President Rodrigo Duterte might have other plans for her. And it has been shown in the past that the father-daughter dynamics run deep. This came to the fore when, against her father’s wishes for her to run as president in 2022, she instead opted to slide down as VP of Marcos Jr.  

Sara Duterte could continue to focus on consolidating her influence in Davao and other Mindanao regions where Duterte is a household name, by bolstering local allies and ensuring their loyalty. She can create a network of support by strengthening and expanding the Hugpong ng Pagbabago, a regional political party that she founded in 2018 to support candidates in the 2019 midterm elections.

She also has to reconcile with the Partido ng Demokratikong Pilipino (PDP) headed by her father.  It counts among its members senators Robinhood Padilla, Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, Bong Go, and Francis Tolentino. It also counts as an ally, former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. Its members in the House of Representatives have dwindled significantly, though, like previous parties run by former presidents. But with at least 3 re-electionist senators, the PDP under Duterte can still have a big following. 

Sara Duterte and Senator Bong Go though are not the best of friends. Lately, Mayor Baste Duterte has taken a swipe at Go for the latter’s alleged silence over issues hounding Davao, especially that of a close ally, Pastor Quiboloy, who is now a fugitive. Congress has issued contempt arrest warrants for his non-appearance in public hearings and a local court has also issued warrants for his arrest over sexual and physical abuse crimes. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation also wants him for sex trafficking. 

Where’s her core group?

But building alliances for Sara Duterte is easier said than done.

She needs a core group whom she can trust and who has the competence to run a national campaign. Her mentor, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whom she helped install as Speaker in 2019 by unseating then-Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, of Davao del Norte, is herself being marginalized under the Marcos Jr. administration. Mrs. Arroyo political fortunes in Pampanga have waned considerably as the Pinedas have consolidated their hold on the province.  

So is Sara Duterte now the opposition? 

That is where coyness and her “no comment” lines can be useful. With more than three years to 2028, she could ill afford to trade barbs in public with President Marcos, and most especially with First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos. VP Sara Duterte could use her position as vice president to champion popular issues, such as education reforms or social welfare initiatives, which can help her build a positive national profile independent of the current administration. 

However, her deafening silence on China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea can be her undoing on the national stage. With rising public sentiment against China, her silence could backfire on her presidential quest. While the move is a calculated one of the Dutertes, who are known to be courting Chinese leader Xi Jin Ping’s support, the words treason and enemy of the people can stick to a name like quisling. –

The author is a former Akbayan congressman and former undersecretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. He is a lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University Political Science Department.

1 comment

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  1. ET

    VP Sara may not need to worry about the “rising public sentiment against China” if China can provide her with the necessary funds and covert support.

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