political dynasties

[OPINION] Term limits and the rise of the Duterte dynasty

Nathan Gilbert Quimpo

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[OPINION] Term limits and the rise of the Duterte dynasty

Illustration by Janina Malinis

'A vice-presidential run for Duterte is a distinct possibility, not just a ruse'

The 1987 Constitution limits the presidency to only one term of six years, stating expressly: “The President shall not be eligible for reelection.” 

How is President Rodrigo Duterte dealing with this single-term limit? 

With the 2022 national elections a little over a year away, it is too late for Duterte to have the Constitution amended to allow him to run again. He has other plans.

Although he has been denying it, Duterte is obviously grooming his daughter, Sara, who succeeded him as mayor of Davao City, to succeed him as president. Sara has been topping opinion polls on possible presidential contenders in 2022. The possibility of a Sara Duterte-Rodrigo Duterte tandem for the presidency and vice-presidency has even been floated – the same daughter-father tandem that held the mayorship and vice-mayorship of Davao City in 2010-13. 

Since Duterte has not publicly stated whom he will support, the jockeying for his nod continues. Some presidential contenders who are currently allies of Duterte still hope that Sara or Duterte himself would slide down to vice presidential position instead. A tandem of Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go for president and R. Duterte for vice-president has reportedly topped a poll survey on potential 2022 presidential-vice-presidential tandems.

After being in elective politics for over three decades, Duterte has had a lot of experience dealing with term limits. A closer look at such experience would give some clues on Duterte’s thinking on the 2022 elections, as well as some insights on the emergence and development of a political dynasty in the Philippines.

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Term limits and political dynasties

Constitutional term limits are usually designed to prevent the monopoly of power by one person, particularly dictatorship, such as that in the form of “president for life.” One of the main reasons why the 1987 Constitution returned to a single-term presidency as provided in the original 1935 Constitution and did away with the 1940 amendment allowing for a two-term presidency was precisely to thwart the comeback of Marcos-type one-man rule.

A growing concern in democracies which set no term limits on legislators is the low rate of legislative turnover at elections. The United States Congress is one legislative body that suffers from this affliction. Citing a study of the Brookings Institution, political scientist John McCormick writes: “on average, about 94% of incumbent members of the House and 84% of members of the Senate have been reelected…and the absence of term limits means that many members of Congress serve for decades in office, sometimes well past the standard retirement age.”  

In the Philippines, there are term limits for all elective positions. While politicians generally abide by the law, some only follow the letter of the law, not the spirit. Those who stick only to the letter of the law do so in three ways: go solo, work in tandem with an ally, or keep it in the family.

A politician who takes the “go solo” route upon reaching the limit of allowable terms simply runs for another position or takes a leave from politics, then returns to run again for the same old position. He or she does it on his or her own, and does not enter into an agreement with another politician who would assume the former’s position during the former’s absence.  

“Work in tandem with an ally” comes in two forms. In the first, the ally agrees to simply “fill in” for the incumbent and to “return” the post at the end of the term. The second type involves a swapping of posts and later a swap-back or switch-back. For instance, a mayor who has served the maximum three terms agrees to a swap with the vice-mayor, and they agree to swap back positions after three years. 

Perhaps the most famous – or infamous – case of swapping of posts to circumvent term limits in global politics is that of President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Their 2008 swap ushered in a period known as “tandemocracy” (tandemokratiia), a diarchy or joint rule by two people – President Medvedev as head of state, and Prime Minister Putin as head of government. (Note: Medvedev was actually only the first deputy prime minister before the swap, but became prime minister in the swap-back in 2012.)

“Keep it in the family” is a time-honored tradition for circumventing constitutional term limits In the Philippines: a politician either “passes on” his or her electoral post to a spouse, sibling, son, daughter or some other relative, or just asks the latter to “mind the store” while the former is gone. Often, a politician who wins a higher position does not go back to his old position, which he or she has “bequeathed” to the relative elected earlier to replace him or her.  Like “work in tandem with an ally,” “mind the store” has both “fill in” and “swap-back” sub-types. Although studies would still need to be made, “keep it in the family” seems to be the most common and impactful method for circumventing term limits in the Philippines.  

The practice of “keep it in the family” has contributed to a major bane in the country’s politics: political dynasties. In many areas, preventing one person’s monopoly of power has helped paved the way for the concentration of power in political families and clans instead. The 1987 Constitution bans political dynasties, but there is no legislation to implement the ban. Thus, political dynasties have flourished. A 2019 study made by political scientists of Ateneo de Manila University and the Asian Institute of Management found that political dynasties dominate the major political parties, and that 75% of district representatives, 85% of governors, and 67% of mayors belong to dynasties. While the absence of term limits in the US Congress has led to the problems of low rate of legislative turnover and overstaying legislators, term limits in the Philippines have been taken advantage of by “keep it in the family” practitioners to promote political dynasty building.  

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Duterte: From ‘lone ranger’ to dynasty-building in Davao City 

In 1998, local politics in Davao City provided Duterte with an opportunity for a “work in tandem with an ally” operation, but it seems that he was not quite sure then what to do with his political career. Duterte, who had already served as the mayor of Davao City for three terms (1988-92, 1992-95, and 1995-1998), was constitutionally barred from running for a fourth term. He decided to run for Congress to represent the first district of Davao City, and to support the candidacy of Vice-Mayor Benjamin de Guzman, his running mate in 1995, for the mayorship. Duterte won the congressional election, De Guzman, the mayoral. Before the end of his term as congressman, however, Duterte realized that national legislative work was not really his cup of tea. He yearned to return to Davao City local politics. 

When Duterte and De Guzman ran for congressman and mayor, respectively, back in 1998, they had made no arrangement for a switch-back to Davao City mayor and vice-mayor, respectively, after a one-term interregnum. In the months just prior to the start of the 2001 electoral campaign, in fact, Duterte kept denying that he would run for mayor again. He apparently did not want to reveal his real plans to others. Thus, De Guzman forged ahead with his reelection run, and almost all of the incumbent councilors of Davao City joined his ticket. Duterte’s filing for candidacy for mayor at the very last minute caught nearly everyone by surprise. Had he apprised De Guzman of his mayoral plans a little earlier, the latter would probably have agreed to slide down to the vice-mayorship. 

A heated and bitter electoral campaign ensued. With almost all incumbent councilors and an overwhelming majority of the city’s barangay captains supporting De Guzman, Duterte fought an uphill battle. Poll surveys indicated De Guzman in the lead up until the last few days of the campaign. The backing of the newly ousted president, Joseph Estrada, and the Iglesia ni Cristo hierarchy tipped the election in Duterte’s favor.  

Duterte had opted to “go solo.” An apt description of Duterte at that time is lone ranger, which Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “one who acts alone and without consultation or the approval of others.” 

Learning from the near-fiasco of 2001, Duterte came up with a well-planned power succession arrangement for the end of his mayorship’s second three-term cycle in 2010. Instead of adopting “work in tandem with an ally,” he chose “keep it in the family.”    

2007 marked the emergence of the Duterte political dynasty. Running for reelection, Duterte chose daughter Sara, a political neophyte, who was just turning 29 years old, to be his running mate. Both of them won overwhelmingly. Later that year, Duterte’s eldest son, Paolo became the barangay captain of Catalunan Grande, a village of Davao City. 

2010 witnessed the swapping of posts. The daughter became mayor and the father, vice-mayor. Sara was elected mayor with a wide winning margin despite being pitted against a veteran politician, Prospero Nograles, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

After the one-term interregnum, Duterte returned to the mayorship in 2013, beginning what could potentially have been a third three-term cycle as mayor. Duterte’s comeback was a single switch-back, as Sara opted not to run for vice-mayor, but to take a short leave from politics. Sara basically played a “fill-in” role during her mayoral stint in 2010-13 to help her father get around the term limit hassle. When Duterte ran for president in 2016, Sara made a switch-back – not to the vice-mayorship, but to the mayorship. 

The political dynasty building continued apace. Paolo Duterte, who ran as Sara’s running mate, was elected Davao City vice-mayor, but he resigned midway in his term after a public spat with Sara. In 2019, he won the congressional seat that his father had held in 1998-2001. When Sara ran for reelection in 2019, 31-year-old Sebastian Duterte, the president’s second son, replaced Paolo as her running mate. Should Sara run for national office, she would probably “bequeath” the mayorship to Sebastian.  

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The presidency and possibly the vice-presidency: ‘Keep it in the family’ 

Among all the elective positions in the Philippines, the presidency is unique, as far as the number of allowable terms is concerned. It is the only one-term elective position in the whole country. Thus, the presidency is invulnerable to electoral switch-back maneuvers, whether of the “work in tandem with an ally” or “keep it the family” type. Duterte cannot return to the presidency in the same way as Putin did in 2012. Or in the same way that Mayor Duterte returned to the mayorship in 2013.  

Holding on to the presidency has become a most urgent concern for the Dutertes. First of all, it is no longer just the matter of Duterte’s hold on power, but the Duterte dynasty’s hold on wealth and power that is at stake. Although the Duterte dynasty is a relative fledgling in the Philippines’ dynasty constellation, it has lately been on a meteoric rise. The loss of the presidency could have very damaging or even disastrous results on its fortunes. Second, the victory of an “unfriendly” successor in 2022 could help deliver Duterte to the International Criminal Court for prosecution for “crimes against humanity” in connection with the “war on drugs’” extrajudicial killings. Whatever electoral maneuvers that the Dutertes are now undertaking are no longer simply about circumventing term limits, but more about dynastic predominance and punishment-foiling.  

The Dutertes are taking mainly a “keep it in the family” approach to the presidential single-term problem: Sara is definitely their candidate. “Keep it in the family” is consistent with their past behavior and their current dynastic trajectory.

Early on in his presidency, Duterte already started grooming Sara as his successor. Sara gained national exposure and prominence after a political alliance she organized, Hugpong ng Pagbabago, campaigned for 13 senatorial candidates in the 2019 midterm elections, nine of whom won the twelve seats being contested.

Over the past several months, streamers and posters urging “Run, Sara, Run!” have sprouted in various parts of the country, indicating a well-oiled and well-organized nationwide machinery. All this grooming of Sara seems to have paid off, as the results of the early opinion surveys on potential 2022 presidential contenders show. 

President Duterte’s name has been floated as a possible vice-presidential candidate in two possible tandems: Sara Duterte-Rodrigo Duterte and Go-Duterte. According to William Pesek, some Duterte’s supporters want a “Kremlin-style power shuffle” – that the president follow the example of Russian President Putin who “pivoted to the No. 2 job for a time, before returning to the presidency.” This needs greater scrutiny. The Go-Duterte tandem reportedly ranked No. 1 in a Pulse Asia survey of potential 2022 presidential-vice-presidential tandems. The survey itself is not really credible as it included only a limited number of possible tandems and excluded Sara altogether in the list of candidates. The hubbub surrounding a Bong Go presidential candidacy is nothing more than just a distraction.

The real purpose of the floating of the Duterte-Duterte and Go-Duterte tandems is to test the waters for a Rodrigo Duterte vice-presidential candidacy. Would the public, especially the masses, find a Duterte-Duterte tandem a “bit too much” and “hindi magandang tingnan” (not good to look at), as Senator Panfilo Lacson has put it?

A vice-presidential run for Duterte is a distinct possibility, not just a ruse. A Rodrigo Duterte vice-presidency could give certain dividends. It could serve as a back-up to a Sara Duterte presidency, facilitating a more direct role for Rodrigo in governance, as for instance in continuing the “war on drugs.” It could also work as an insurance to at least some hold to power in the event of Sara not making it in 2022.

Lastly, a vice presidency affords Duterte with his only remaining opportunity to return to the presidency. While the Constitution bars him from a second presidential term, it does not bar a president who becomes vice president to succeed a president who dies, resigns, is disabled or removed from office. Vice-President Duterte, of “war on drugs” and “kill, kill, kill” fame, would just be, as the saying goes, a heartbeat away from (returning to) the presidency. – Rappler.com

Nathan Gilbert Quimpo is an adjunct professor at Hosei University and the University of Tsukuba in Japan. He is the author of Contested Democracy and the Left in the Philippines after Marcos and the co-author of Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years. 

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