President Duterte’s swan song

Last Thursday, March 31, President Duterte visited Cebu, and gave two speeches. One was before a meeting of the National and Regional Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-RTF-Elcac). The other was at the grand proclamation rally of the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban, Cusi wing). The latter was eagerly awaited. The President might use it as the occasion to announce, once and for all, his anointment of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as his candidate in the 2022 presidential election.

It would have been the most logical thing to do. His daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, an early frontrunner in the presidential surveys, is running as Marcos Jr.’s vice presidential candidate. Mr. Duterte’s own party, the Cusi-led faction of the PDP-Laban, unable to field its own candidates for the top positions, last week announced its support for the Marcos-Duterte team.

Despite all this, Mr. Duterte has rejected any insinuation that he was supporting Marcos Jr. And, in Cebu, he did so in a visibly defiant, emphatic, and ill-tempered way: “I am not supporting any presidential candidate. Neutral ako (I am neutral). So, this is not a campaign, because I am not campaigning for any particular candidate. So, stop f…ing with me.”

What is equally interesting is that he made this declaration at the NTF-RTF-Elcac meeting, ahead of the PDP-Laban rally. Was it to preempt any attempt to turn the latter event into a surprise presidential campaign sortie for Marcos Jr.? If there is anything Mr. Duterte made clear during his visit to Cebu at the height of the ongoing campaign season, it is that he would not be a hostage to a fait accompli or be pressured to endorse Marcos Jr. for the presidency.

Why? I can think of three reasons.

First, Mr. Duterte has always believed that his daughter Sara is perfectly positioned and ripe enough to succeed him as president. As he noted recently, the country would benefit greatly from having a lawyer with a compassionate heart for the poor and the downtrodden. (Leni Robredo accurately fits that description, but I doubt if he was referring to her.) This doting father of a rebellious daughter genuinely thinks that, based on the continuing popularity of the Duterte brand, Sara could easily win the presidency. Therefore, in his view, she should not have agreed to slide down to vice president.

Second, deep in his heart, Mr. Duterte has no special fondness for the Marcoses. He has declared on many occasions that he owes them nothing. As a young lawyer during the dark years of martial law (he finished law in 1972), he could not have been unaffected by the abuses and corruption that were committed with impunity by the Marcos dictatorial regime. Neither does he hold Marcos Jr. in high regard. Indeed, he once called him a spoiled brat, someone accustomed to privilege, who took no interest in enriching his mind or preparing himself for the arduous role of a leader.

Third and lastly, Mr. Duterte continues to feel resentful about being outmaneuvered by political elites like former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who brokered the union between Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte behind his back. If there is anything an authoritarian like Rodrigo Duterte cannot easily let pass, it is to be presented with a finished product that he does not like but cannot outrightly reject either. Nothing is more emblematic of an autocrat’s declining power than the crucial loss of control over the succession process.

Mr. Duterte, of course, has reasons that are not always easy to fathom. Marcos Jr. might have tried to get a sense of what these are and how he might address them during his two-hour visit to Malacañang recently. Sen. Bong Go said Mr. Duterte did most of the talking in that meeting. Yet there was not even a hint of what they talked about. Clearly, nothing of any significance was worth reporting.

Still, Mr. Duterte might yet change his mind. Like most politicians who have managed to survive and even flourish through changes in political administrations, he is a pragmatist. But he also carries a big chip on his shoulder, one that often manifests itself as a belligerent attitude toward old wealth and Manila’s political class, a deep resentment against American influence, and a reflex hostility to anything associated with the politico-cultural Establishment.

These enduring sentiments were, once more, on full display at his recent speeches in Cebu, which, if anything, sounded more like a discordant swan song than a hopeful salute to political continuity. He again spoke against his favorite oligarchs who make their money, he says, from the generous concessions, franchises, and tax breaks they manage to get from cooperative administrations. He played to the crowd’s regionalism by lamenting that his presidency, a first for a son of Mindanao, was soon coming to an end.

He showed little energy at what was supposed to be the grand proclamation rally of the candidates of his party. He rambled about heroes in history, cracked sexist jokes, and perfunctorily read the names of the PDP-Laban’s senatorial candidates as though he knew where they stood in the latest surveys. Later, he read his own personal list of senatorial candidates who were better known and ranked better in the surveys.

Nearly all of them were returning senators from the other parties—a clear testament to the irrelevance of the ruling party and of party affiliation itself, and an eloquent nod to the abiding power of political opportunism and patronage.