Duterte: The question of succession
In retrospect, President Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address (Sona) will likely be his most important. More than ever, the question of succession looms over the horizon, as the President grapples with what has become among the worst epidemic outbreaks and economic crises in the region.
In just over a year from now, the next presidential campaign will effectively commence. A number of top contenders, especially Sen. Manny Pacquiao, have already signaled their intentions. Quietly helping frontliners and the worst-affected communities on the ground, Vice President Leni Robredo is gaining momentum while weighing her options.
The ultimate dark horse, however, is Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, the hottest political figure in town. He faces a similar quandary as Sen. Grace Poe in 2016: If he stays longer in (Manila’s byzantine) politics, he risks losing momentum. But if he is perceived to be running for the highest office too soon, he may peak too early. The stakes are too high to ignore.
Perhaps more than any country, the succession question is of immense importance to Filipino presidents. On one hand, they are constrained with only a single term in office, undercutting their ability to sustain long-term-oriented reforms. In a country with no real political parties, personal bonds are often the best indications of policy direction.
Reformist presidents Fidel Ramos and Benigno Aquino III painfully grappled with this dilemma, as populist successors reversed much of their liberal democratic gains. One could just imagine the Philippines’ alternative trajectory had Ramos and Aquino been able to sustain their reforms through reliable successors.
Moreover, similar to the United States, there is a strong anti-incumbency bias throughout election cycles. In America’s case, this tends to happen after eight years of rule under a single party or successively elected president. Even when faced with less-than-stellar Republican challengers, relatively popular Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama failed to ensure their preferred successor’s victory.
Third, and most crucially, the Philippines is eerily similar to South Korea when it comes to the cruel fate of ex-presidents. Since their transition to democracy, Koreans have forced several presidents either into jail, suicide, or even impeachment over allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
However, though our democratic experience exceeds Korea’s in temporal terms, our institutional checks and balances have proven far less mature. The success of the Edsa I and Edsa II “people power” revolts was determined less by judicial accountability than by the military’s withdrawal of institutional support from disgraced presidents.
Nonetheless, the past two decades have seen a reliable pattern of political persecution against former presidents, with one temporarily ending up in jail for plunder and another confined to a years-long de facto house arrest. As for the third one, he was subjected to nothing less than legislative harassment by overnight anti-vaxxers, while constantly grappling with the specter of more vicious forms of politically motivated persecution.
Having alienated powerful elements across the world, President Duterte faces an even more acute dilemma. Allegations of widespread human rights violations could even portend full-fledged International Criminal Court prosecution and personal sanctions by major countries.
Barring an 11th-hour constitutional overhaul, a “nuclear option” that constantly lurks in the shadows, Mr. Duterte’s best hope to avoid the fate of his predecessors is to ensure a friendly, if not subservient, successor.
Davao’s youthful and charismatic Mayor Sara Duterte has seemed the most viable contender to succeed her father. Her unwillingness to contest what would have been a crucial and relatively smooth Senate run last year revealed the mayor’s likely alternative plans. But so far, it looks like the presidential daughter is far more focused on consolidating the “Solid South” bloc, which did remarkably well during the 2019 elections.
And this brings us to the ever-loyal consiglieri and now Sen. Bong Go, who had a solid performance in the 2019 elections. Defying his detractors, the presidential aide got as many as 20 million votes last year, underscoring his political dynamism and indispensability to the Duterte administration’s day-to-day operations. Among pundits, he is seen as the de facto heir apparent.
It goes without saying, however, that Mr. Duterte’s ability to shape the post-2022 landscape will depend much on the state of his political capital in the coming months. The decisive factor is regaining public trust over his crisis-management performance, now under withering public scrutiny.
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