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Power behind the throne: Sara Duterte to hold sway as Marcos' VP

President's Daughter Backs Dictator's Son To Effectively Seal Election

Sara Duterte, daughter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, speaks during a rally in Davao on May 6. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) 

MANILA -- The Philippine presidential race was turned on its head last November, when Sara Duterte, daughter of the incumbent leader, decided not to run for the country's top job despite being the favorite in opinion polls.

Her move to run for vice president and ally with the ultimate presidential election winner, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., effectively sealed the fate of Monday's election.

Both children of presidents secured around 60% of the vote in their separate election races, giving the duo the strongest popular-vote mandate in decades.

For Marcos, the victory marks the ultimate political comeback of his family after the 1986 People Power revolution that toppled his namesake father after 20 years in power. For Sara Duterte, the win gives her a launchpad for a later bid for the presidency and to continue her father's legacy and dynasty, possibly making her the most powerful vice president in the country's modern history.

Their historic votes were delivered by a combination of their support bases -- Duterte's southern Philippine island of Mindanao, and the Marcos family in the northern region of Ilocos.

"Marcos benefited more from the alliance," said Froilan Calilung, a political science professor at the University of the Santo Tomas in Manila, citing the strength of the Duterte family in the vote-rich central island of Cebu.

Duterte, 43, topped opinion polls for president last year, partly due to her popular father. But had she run for president and competed with the 64-year-old Marcos, their votes could have been split, Calilung said, risking a loss to Leni Robredo, the progressive incumbent vice president.

Sara will be the first vice president since 2004 to win on the same ticket as the victorious president, potentially avoiding an acrimonious relationship similar to that between her father and Robredo. While Rodrigo Duterte sidelined Robredo, Sara is expected to wield influence in the government.

"For now, Sara will remain influential and could exercise a political veto on major policy or personnel decisions early on," said Bob Herrera-Lim, an analyst at Teneo.

Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr. declares
Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. declares victory in a speech at his headquarters in Manila on Wednesday. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Marcos on Wednesday named Sara Duterte as education secretary, his first cabinet-appointment.

Sara, an army reservist with the rank of colonel, had initially eyed the Department of National Defense, which would allow her to oversee the military. On Thursday, she quashed unspecified "intrigue" on why she did not get the defense post.

"I expect that people who want to see the new administration fail will fabricate intrigue about my loyalty and the DND position to break the UniTeam," Sara said, referring to the branding of the Marcos-Duterte alliance during the campaign.

"The UniTeam wants a stable Philippines and the most harmonious administration possible," she added.

Herrera-Lim said Sara probably agreed to the education post, rather than the defense job, to "reduce or prevent [conspiracy theories] from growing any bigger." One theory is that the Duterte family is set on having Marcos disqualified to serve as president.

Opponents of Marcos are still pressing for his disqualification from the presidential race, citing a tax evasion conviction in the 1990s that would be have rendered him ineligible for public office.

The Commission on Elections has rejected the petitions and subsequent appeals but petitioners have vowed to the bring the case to the Supreme Court. If Marcos is disqualified after assuming office on June 30, Sara will automatically become president.

Often called Inday Sara, the mother of three currently serves as mayor of the southern city of Davao, a post that Rodrigo Duterte held for more than two decades. Seen as a humble but tough politician, she first rose to national prominence when she punched a court sheriff multiple times on national television in 2011.

Her political clout has grown during her father's presidency. In 2018, she helped oust the speaker of congress and her father's key ally, Pantaleon Alvarez, after a regional party dispute. In 2019, her backing helped pro-Duterte senatorial candidates win midterm elections.

"She is a woman of her own character. Inday Sara is not someone you can push over," said Calilung, the professor.

Calilung said Marcos and Sara Duterte's relationship "is very cordial" based on how they ran their campaign, although their personalities could be a "challenge" in policymaking and implementation.

"Their personalities clash. Bongbong is prim and proper, and laid back. Sara is tough and feisty."

Teneo's Herrera-Lim said Marcos's popularity will be partly dependent on his relationship with Sara. "The risk to Marcos' popularity in the next year or two therefore emanates not from the current opposition, but from any falling out with the Dutertes," he said.

After she voted on May 9, Sara reiterated her pledge of allegiance to Marcos.

"[I] will be a supportive and loyal vice president to BBM [Bongbong Marcos] in the event he wins," she told reporters.