Duterte Heir Signals Philippine Ambition With Break From Marcos

(Bloomberg) -- Weeks ago, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was speaking of his deputy, Vice President Sara Duterte, in glowing terms. With Duterte resigning from his cabinet this week, the president’s “best friend forever” is set to become his most formidable challenger just two years into his six-year term.

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Duterte’s move isn’t unexpected, coming after months of increasingly fractious disagreements between the nation’s two most influential political families, according to politicians and analysts. While the move is unlikely to have any major policy implications, and markets seem largely unaffected, it marks a turning point for the former allies. And it sets up a showdown in next year’s midterm elections, and even the 2028 presidential vote.

Free from a cabinet portfolio, Sara will most likely use her time to consolidate her support while aiming to field her own congressional candidates to challenge Marcos-backed politicians, according to Ramon Beleno, a political analyst and former professor from Davao City, the Dutertes’ bailiwick.

A decent showing in the midterms would strengthen the chances for Sara — daughter of former leader Rodrigo Duterte — taking the presidency in 2028, Beleno said. “The Dutertes will try to retake the momentum and go full force on the offensive,” he said.

Political Machine

The vice president is set to pose a significant political challenge to Marcos, with surveys showing that Sara is more popular than the president — while also being among voters’ top choices to succeed Marcos when his single term ends in 2028.

The Duterte clan also holds considerable sway in the politically important southern island of Mindanao, where Marcos’ trust rating fell significantly amid a public spat with his predecessor when they traded barbs about each other’s drug use.

Still, Marcos enjoys many of the advantages that come with the presidency, giving him an edge in next year’s vote, according to Sherwin Ona, an associate professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila.

“The president has the political machine, so to speak. The 2025 elections will be an opportunity for Marcos to consolidate his power,” he said.

Ona also points to a couple of vulnerabilities for the Dutertes. The former president has a complaint pending before the International Criminal Court over his deadly drug war. Sara herself faced allegations of irregularities over her use of confidential funds, charges she’s denied.

Shaky Alliance

Sara’s alliance with Marcos had been on shaky ground within a year of their 2022 landslide win on a joint ticket. In May 2023, she quit the biggest party that backs Marcos citing “political powerplay” and has been largely quiet on national issues including the South China Sea, much of which Beijing claims for itself. Her father had been conciliatory toward Beijing in stark contrast with Marcos’ increasing assertiveness, which has seen the two countries clash repeatedly at sea.

Duterte’s exit gives Marcos “undisputed” power in the cabinet, said Michael Henry Yusingco, senior research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center in Manila. “The President has now full and sole control of his political future as well as his family’s,” he said.

But the move would allow Duterte to be more vocal in her opposition to Marcos, according to Harry Roque, who served as spokesperson during the presidency of Sara’s father, Rodrigo. “The line has been drawn,” Roque said in a Facebook post.

The political shifts are unlikely to trigger any immediate leadership crisis in the Philippines, said Bob Herrera-Lim, managing director at global advisory firm Teneo. The Southeast Asian nation remains to be among the fastest-growing economies in the region.

“The public will see it for what it is — the formalization of the political divorce of the Marcos and Duterte families in preparation for the 2025 midterms and eventually the 2028 presidential elections,” he said.

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