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Duterte's daughter rises as potential heir to strongman presidency

Philippine midterms put Sara Duterte among several women tipped to run in 2022

Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao and daughter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, played an active role in boosting Senate candidates who support her father.   © Reuters

MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's strongman image helped his allies crush opponents in Monday's midterm elections, but the candidates also received a boost from a strong woman: his daughter, Sara.

Sara Duterte first rose to national prominence when she punched a sheriff for implementing a court order to demolish shanties in 2011. Now the mayor of Davao City -- a position her father held for more than two decades -- she has emerged as an influential politician in her own right.

In the midterm campaign, she rallied supporters and worked with prominent politicians to improve the chances of the 13 candidates who vowed to back her father. Nine of them are now poised to take seats in the Senate, out of the 12 that were contested, giving her father's controversial policy platform a lift.

"But now Inday [Sara] is the one taking the lead," the elder Duterte said early this year, adding that his daughter was "one who controls politics."

Her high-profile role in the campaign has raised speculation that she will run for president in 2022, when her father's term expires. She may even become part of a three- or four-way race among female candidates, with other powerful women having claimed top slots in the Senate -- a steppingstone for three of the six Philippine presidents since the restoration of democracy in 1987.

In February, Sara Duterte said her decision to run in 2022 will "depend on the circumstances. Maybe we can make a deadline in January 2021."

A successful bid would enable her to push ahead with her father's policies of fighting crime and building infrastructure. It would also maintain a tradition in the country of electing women and offspring of past presidents.

"She's following the style of her father as a strongman, but just the lady version," said Dennis Coronacion, who chairs the political science department of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.

In another sign of her growing political clout, Sara Duterte led a bid last year to unseat Pantaleon Alvarez as House speaker, and install former President Gloria Arroyo as the new leader of Congress. Several members of Congress said Sara Duterte met and phoned lawmakers to back the ouster plan.

"She is now a national political figure and a possible presidential candidate," said Ramon Casiple, executive director at the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. "She is a viable candidate if she chooses to run."

But she is not the only woman with a shot in 2022.

Partial results on Tuesday show that two women gained the most votes in the Senate election: Cynthia Villar, wife of billionaire businessman Manuel Villar, topped the polls, followed by incumbent Sen. Grace Poe, a 2016 presidential candidate.

"[Cynthia Villar's] strong win gives the family several options for the next presidential cycle in 2022; either Cynthia or Manuel can be considered potential presidential candidates," wrote Bob Herrera Lim, managing director at risk consultancy Teneo.

The Villars possess the ideal machinery to pull off a successful presidential bid: money and local government connections.

Manuel Villar, a former Senate president and presidential candidate in 2010, is the Philippines' richest man with a net worth of $6.2 billion, according to Forbes. He is also chairman of the Nacionalista Party, the country's oldest political party, which has produced the most presidents since the 1930s.

Cynthia Villar has been coy about having plans to take the top job: "Why do you have to plan for it when it's destiny," she said in a TV interview in January.

Rodrigo Duterte shows the ink on his finger after voting in his hometown of Davao.   © EPA

Any prospective candidate -- male or female -- will probably take note of Rodrigo Duterte's style. He enjoys record-high popularity ratings despite international criticism of his brutal drug war and what critics call his increasingly autocratic government.

The son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Bongbong Marcos, is seeking to ride that same wave and is believed to be plotting a run in 2022. The Marcos brand got a fresh boost this week after Imee Marcos, daughter of Ferdinand, won a Senate seat in the midterms.

Another woman, Vice President Leni Robredo, the highest elected official of the main opposition Liberal Party, is also tipped to stand.

Edmund Tayao, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University School Government, would not hazard a guess on what could happen in three years.

Echoing the presidential contenders' responses, Tayao said: "What one can do is prepare, organize. At the end of the day, the presidency is always a destiny."

Researcher Ella Hermonio in Manila contributed to this report.

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