We're Live Bangla Tuesday, June 06, 2023

The tide is turning against Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sara

Nobel Peace Prize For Maria Ressa Has Further Strengthened Opposition Resolve

Cropped-1634286157R20211015 Rodrigo Duterte
Rodrigo Duterte's grip on power is now more fragile than ever.    © Reuters

The Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to co-award this year's Peace Prize to Maria Ressa, along with Russian journalist Dmitri A. Muratov, could not have come at a more crucial juncture in Philippine politics as the country heads toward elections that will test the future of its democracy.

All year, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son of the former dictator, and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, daughter of the current president, have led the field of would-be successors to Rodrigo Duterte. But with his popularity ratings in free fall, the ruling coalition is starting to resemble a sinking ship.

Sensing weakness, the Marcos family has been chipping away at the president's base, while a coterie of charismatic centrist and opposition candidates have been actively tapping into widespread disillusionment with Duterte himself, who has overseen one of Asia's worst COVD recessions as well as some of the region's highest infection rates.

After five years of populist incompetence, from the scorched-earth drug war to a fruitless flirtation with Beijing, the tide is turning against Duterte and his anointed successors. That so few saw this coming underscores the inherent unpredictability of Philippine politics.

Until recently, Duterte seemed to have the momentum and the popularity to find a way to extend his term-limited six-year presidency by running as vice president with his daughter Sara at the top of the ticket, despite expert legal opinions arguing that this would undermine the spirit of the constitution.

After the International Criminal Court formally opened an investigation into allegations of mass atrocities under Duterte's watch, the Filipino populist openly admitted that his bid to stay in power was mainly about avoiding being brought to account for any alleged abuses, especially his bloody drug war that has claimed the lives of thousands.

"The law says, if you are vice president, you have [legal] immunity. Then I will just run for vice president," Duterte admitted in a public speech, reflecting his concerns over potential prosecution following his departure from office.

His erstwhile ally, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, successfully ran as a congresswoman, and later became Speaker of the House, in a bid to reportedly shield herself from potential prosecution over corruption scandals during her presidency.

It did not take long, however, before Duterte saw his popularity plunging and his allies abandoning him en masse. First came defections within the ruling Partido Demoktratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) Party, as former ally and party president, Emmanuel "Manny" Pacquiao, launched a rival bid for the presidency.

Then came a new wave of corruption scandals, involving the purchase of overpriced medical equipment by government contractors, enraging voters. Duterte poured fuel on the fire by publicly threatening -- and personally insulting -- top senators investigating the allegations.

At the same time, Duterte squandered his initial momentum by dillydallying and then anointing his former longtime aide Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go as his successor, enraging his daughter who promptly threatened to quit the race altogether.

It is still unclear whether Sara will pull off an eleventh-hour run for the presidency by "substituting" for one of the ruling party's proxies who have already registered their candidacy for the presidency. But the reality is that Duterte's grip on power is now more fragile than ever.

Duterte's approval ratings plunged by as much as 21% over the last nine months, with a majority of Filipinos, including those from his home island of Mindanao, opposing his plans to run as vice president.

The latest surveys also show that a Duterte-Duterte tandem ticket is no longer the favorite, with one early-September survey showing that Rodrigo Duterte trailed front-runner Sen. Vicente Sotto III by 11 points, while Sara suffered an 8 points decline, making her statistically tied with Marcos and two other centrist candidates. Other surveys suggest an even closer race, with momentum on the side of Marcos and Manila Mayor Francisco "Isko" Moreno.

Entering his twilight months in office, Duterte is a shadow of his former self, overseeing a disintegrating ruling coalition. Seeing the writing on the wall, Duterte has declared his "retirement from politics," though he will likely seek a local government position as a hedge against future retribution.

Centrist candidates such as Manila Mayor Isko Moreno as well as boxer-turned-senator Pacquiao have turned on their former ally by openly accusing the Duterte administration of widespread incompetence and "plundemic," a portmanteau describing the massive plunder that has taken place during the pandemic.

Intent on preventing Marcoses' recapture of the Malacanang, current Vice President Leni Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition, has also thrown her hat into the ring, vowing to end "old, rotten politics" in the Philippines.

In a tactical stroke of genius, the Robredo camp rebranded the liberal opposition by emphasizing progressive politics, promoting inclusive coalition-building, using more fiery rhetoric and literally adopting a whole new color -- pink -- to replace the tired "Yellow" liberal politics that has lost its luster among younger voters.

Against this backdrop, Maria Ressa's historic Nobel Peace Prize, the first by any Filipino, has only strengthened the resolve of the country's progressive and liberal forces who have collectively fought for freedom against the tide of authoritarian populism.

The upcoming presidential elections look now like a chaotic circus, but they are a historic opportunity to rescue and revive a battered democracy.

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."