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Duterte's dynastic ambitions laid bare in election

Philippines president grooms daughter, raising concern over concentration of power in one family

| Philippines

The vote is still more than six weeks away but already the upcoming midterm elections are gripping the Philippines' public imagination.

While Filipinos will primarily be choosing legislators and local officials the vote is becoming a referendum on President Rodrigo Duterte's first two years in office.

It is not too soon to predict that the controversial strongman's supporters are likely to do well -- and that the result will probably set the stage for his daughter's eventual succession.

While such an outcome would reflect the president's undoubted popularity, it raises serious questions over the country's democratic health amid the prospect of the first dynastic succession in Philippine history.

Regardless of the individual merits of members of ruling families, excessive concentration of power rarely bodes well for any functioning democracy, let alone a fairly fragile one as in the Philippines.

Despite a flurry of controversies hounding Rodrigo Duterte's three-year presidency, including an uptick in inflation last year and global criticism of his brutal drug war, his allies and family members are expected to cruise through the May 13 vote.

If his supporters come to dominate both houses of the legislature, Duterte will be in an unprecedented position to alter the Philippine constitution in his own image.

The election campaign has also effectively turned into an early presidential run for Duterte's daughter Sara, who at 40 is the mayor of Davao, a post her father previously filled for many years. She has been the de facto captain of the administration's ticket.

Political momentum and public resources are on Duterte's part. Midterm elections tend to favor the administration, which controls the state apparatus.

The ruling party can leverage its position by deploying large numbers of public servants and security services personnel in support of the incumbent's candidates. Not to mention easy access to finance, which is crucial for large-scale politics in fledgling democracies such as the Philippines.

During midterm elections, the state effectively turns into an extension of the ruling party. The Filipino political class has, unfortunately, largely defanged the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC), which supervises elections.

The upshot is a flurry of premature campaigning, putting up advertisements ahead of official campaign period, and minimal oversight of campaign financing, including from overseas. The Philippines even lacks basic rules and oversight mechanisms on sources of electoral financing, including from foreign entities.

Many high-profile candidates have often repeatedly ignored, so far with impunity, basic legal requirements such as reporting campaign expenses. In this free-for-all electoral milieu, administration candidates are usually in a more advantageous position.

The liberal opposition, however, seeks to reverse Duterte's momentum by questioning his authoritarian populism and alleged mismanagement of the economy and foreign relations, particularly toward the United States and China.

They hope to pin down Duterte and his allies by focusing on upsurge in inflation last year and the administration's increasingly cozy relations with China, which has sparked controversy in the Filipino public and the defense establishment.

Even opposition bigwigs such as former presidential candidate and senator Manuel "Mar" Roxas III joined the fray, hoping to rally the opposition against the president.

They also count on the influential Catholic Church, which has been at loggerheads with the Filipino president over human rights issues. The Filipino president has even called for the killing of priests, while engaging in verbal spats with the Church leadership. Recent months have seen senior Church officials and bishops indirectly telling voters to refrain from voting for Duterte and his allies.

Theoretically, an alliance of liberal democrats and the Catholic Church should have presented a formidable challenge to the president.

So far, however, there is little indication that the opposition, led by the Otso Diretso ("honest eight") senatorial candidates, will be able to turn the tide of Dutertismo, the president's authoritarian style. The latest surveys indicate that Duterte's popularity has even increased by double-digit (+66%), now standing higher than any of his predecessors at this stage in their office.

He is profiting from the growing appeal of authoritarian-style leadership, an effective propaganda campaign on social media, and robust economic growth.

Duterte and his chief allies hope to secure a supermajority coalition in both houses of the Congress to implement a draconian legislative agenda. This would include restoring the death penalty, reducing the age of criminality, loosening barriers to foreign (read Chinese) investments, and weakening the Commission on Human Rights.

Crucially, he would amend the 1987 constitution to strengthen the presidency and establish a federal government system that would benefit provincial dynasties (like his own).

Duterte's strength is reflected in the meteoric rise of his long-term aide Bong Go, a taciturn and formerly obscure figure who has leapfrogged the popularity in recent months.

Once in power, Bong Go is expected to serve as the chief whip, who will try to ensure the historically independent-leaning Philippine Senate toes Duterte's legislative agenda.

Critics have accused the administration of deploying state resources and machinery in favor of its bets, unfairly tilting the balance of elections. The Go campaign's posters prominently feature "tatay" (father) Duterte with "kuya" (big brother) Go.

But the biggest winner of the upcoming elections is likely to be Duterte's daughter, Sara, who stood back from the senate race in favor of remaining Davao mayor. Over the past year, she has been at her father's side on high profile foreign trips, acting as de facto First Lady.

She effectively spearheads the administration alliance party, the so-called Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP), which includes many political figures and parties as partners.

"In fact, there is even a movement launching her to be the next president," Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo openly said at the beginning of the campaign. "Many believe in her. They see in her the character of the father: formidable, intelligent, courageous -- braver than the President, I heard."

A Duterte victory is likely mean a vigorous push for constitutional amendments and a major overhaul of the Philippine political system toward an illiberal regime with the Duterte dynasty, and its brand of authoritarian governance, at its very center.

What the Philippines needs, however, is not a stronger presidency but strong state institutions, to provide better public services, and robust checks on the excesses of executive power. Fully-fledged dynastic rule will only weaken the country's fragile democratic institutions in favor of personal rule, which has proven disastrous in Philippine history.

While some political families have served the country well, the dark experience of the long and corrupt Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship should serve as a sobering reminder of the dangers of dynastic politics.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author; his latest book is "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy."

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