All in the family: Philippine politics at its worst

IF IT is any indication of what’s to come in May 2022, political families and warring factions hogging the spotlight now will serve as key players, once again sidelining those who really matter most during the exercise: the voting public.

The abysmal human rights record and bungled pandemic response of the Duterte administration has not escaped the attention of international audiences, much to the disdain of his allies and supporters. Duterte’s announcement on October 2 that he would “retire” from politics was all lip service; he had seemingly forgotten that only weeks prior, he had accepted the nomination of his party, PDP-Laban, for vice president. At that time, however, there was the fresh matter of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigation into his bloody war on drugs, as well as the killings by death squads in Davao City when he was still its mayor. Duterte refuses to recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC to this day, but he has told the media that he intends to go home and prepare his defense. 

Meanwhile, Sara Duterte-Carpio, now Davao mayor, insisted on running for reelection despite ranking high in the presidential preference surveys. She said she had an agreement with her father that only one of them would seek a national post. The family has run Davao for decades, and it only makes sense that another Duterte inherit the country. 

Filipinos were then taken for a ride in the same way that TV dramas keep their viewers  guessing. The media followed Duterte-Carpio wherever she went, asking allies whether she would or wouldn’t run, and for what position. Until her withdrawal of her COC as mayor on November 9, she fueled speculations that she would run as a substitute for a higher post, and media trailed her every move thereafter despite her non-confirmation of anything. 

Reviewing the season

The “Saranovela,” as the Manila Bulletin called it, succeeded in getting public attention. This strategy was clearly lifted from the president’s playbook in 2015, when he managed to keep media attention on his supposed uncertainty over running. After resigning from her regional party Hugpong ng Pagbabago, taking her oath with the national Lakas-CMD and accepting its chairmanship, Duterte-Carpio filed her COC for the vice presidency under the Lakas ticket on November 13, replacing a previously unheard of “placeholder.” Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., who is running as the standard bearer of Partido Federal ng Pilipinas (PFP), adopted her as his VP candidate.

President Duterte, apparently out of the loop and leery of Duterte-Carpio’s decision, floated the idea of running against his daughter but settled for a senatorial candidacy instead. However, he ran on the ticket of the previously unheard of Pederalismo ng Dugong Dakilang Samahan (PDDS) instead of representing PDP-Laban. Senator Christopher “Bong” Go also jumped ship to PDDS, dropping his VP bid under PDP-Laban and replacing another unheard of candidate in running for president under PDDS. Essentially, PDP-Laban has been “orphaned,” as  UP political science professor Jean Franco put it in a TV Patrol report. 

As the period for substitutions and withdrawals concluded, news coverage sought political analysts who agreed that the whole mess was also a circus. Voluntary substitution seemed like a novel idea when Duterte did it. But with everyone else doing it, the culprits are rightly being accused of mocking the electoral process.  

In her opinion piece for Rappler, Prof. Carmel Abao of the Ateneo de Manila University’s political science department laid out a detailed and sobering framework of the issue of substitution: its original intentions, how the Dutertes have taken advantage of it, and why that meant they repeatedly lied to the public. 

Based on news reports and the official social media posts of those involved, Abao pieced together a timeline of the “will they, won’t they” drama, involving not just the Dutertes but also their allies like Go and Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa. The public can easily remember how both became emotional when confronted by the media about their seriousness in running. Abao also tracked how “meet-and-greet” photos on social media, particularly between Marcos and Duterte-Carpio, were passed off by the parties involved as having no political significance. But this did not keep netizens from speculating that the two would team up.

Marcos, however, stuck to his candidacy for president, claiming there were “no quitters” in his family. Duterte-Carpio’s reason for settling for VP? She cannot ignore her supporters.

Casualties of the circus

Based on the “timeline of lies,” Abao had the following observations: 

  1. Lying to the public has been normalized.
  2. The Dutertes are desperate to stay in power.
  3. The Marcoses are desperate to make a Malacanang comeback.
  4. Political families, not political parties, will be shaping and structuring the May 2022 elections.
  5. Given the fragmentation of both the administration and opposition camps, the next president is likely to be a minority president.  

The second point could not be truer. Duterte might have been unsuccessful in getting his daughter to run the Philippines, but he pushed his political son Go to run for president and he himself is willing to be seated again even as a senator. Indeed, he claimed on November 18 that he chose to run because he did not like the way the Pharmally probes were handled by the Senate, hinting at absolving the company once he gets elected. 

Moreover, this step-down is not without precedent. Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also sought a lower office and won as Pampanga representative. In 2018, she succeeded in ousting and replacing Pantaleon Alvarez as House Speaker, the fourth most powerful position in the country. Duterte-Carpio was said to be the force behind Alvarez’ ouster. Arroyo continues to wield considerable power and influence as Lakas-CMD’s president emeritus, and the presidential daughter has now jumped the Hugpong ship to her party. A Lakas statement, however, denied to the media that Arroyo had brokered any arrangement between Duterte-Carpio and Marcos.

Abao’s observation on the dominance of political families is the most discernible, as evidenced by the same cast of characters being covered daily. She called political parties the “biggest casualty in the substitution game,” pointing out that these have been inherently weak. Dropping parties and teaming up despite incomplete slates in order to advance their self-interests, candidates have birthed a “political Frankenstein,” as a report by called it.

On November 19, Friday evening, media broke the news that Duterte-Carpio had  returned to Hugpong to continue as its chair, which apparently the party’s by-laws allow. She now chairs both Hugpong and Lakas-CMD, and her tandem with Marcos is now supported by three parties.

May 9, 2022 might still be months away, but current events tell us that honesty and integrity among frontrunners is in short supply. There is also the matter of a Duterte crony winning the contract for election logistics still floating in the air, largely undiscussed. Each Filipino should realize how crucial the 2022 elections are in determining this country’s future, but that’s a message most of them are not getting.