MANILA -- "Run, Sara, Run" has become a popular campaign slogan to persuade President Rodrigo Duterte's daughter to succeed him in next year's election, but she is pleading with her many supporters not to use it. At least for now.
Sara Duterte's purported reluctance is not reflected in the polls, and skeptics are quick to remind that her father also played coy prior to 2016 elections. Duterte initially ran for re-election as mayor of Davao City, allowing the clamor for him to shoot for the presidency to mount.
After a month, he stood in for a little-known party mate who conveniently backed out of the presidential race, and embarked on a barnstorming run at the presidency.
A year from now, Filipinos will choose the successor of Duterte, whose presidency is best known internationally for a brutal war on drugs that has officially left over 6,000 dead -- but watchdogs believe the true toll is at minimum four times higher. His intimidation of the political opposition appalled human rights advocates, and his policy pivot toward China exasperated the country's most stalwart ally, the U.S.
The Philippine general elections come as President Joe Biden seeks to bolster U.S. alliances in Asia to counter China, whose recent assertiveness in the region, particularly close to home in the South China Sea, has alarmed Manila's pro-U.S. defense establishment. The Philippines and U.S. are renegotiating the Visiting Forces Agreement after Duterte in February 2020 unilaterally suspended the pact, which is vital to their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
Duterte's time in office has rattled politicians at home and abroad, and shaken up the business community as well.
Duterte pressured a tycoon he wanted to "destroy" to divest himself of his gaming company. After he threatened owners of the powerful Ayala conglomerate with jail over a water contract, they recently fell in line with his wishes. ABS-CBN, the largest broadcaster owned by the influential Lopez family, was forced to shut down after clashing with the fearsome president.
"Duterte's election introduced several uncertainties, including a pro-China foreign policy shift, an anti-elite stance that threatened to upset entrenched elites and their businesses, and a less cohesive relationship with traditional allies and Western institutions," said Bob Herrera-Lim, managing director and analyst at Teneo, a U.S. risk consultancy.
Duterte is constitutionally limited to a six-year term as president. The key question according to Herrera-Lim: "How much will Duterte's successor shift these policies?"
The stakes are high for the domestic economy. Duterte's pandemic response involved lockdowns that shrank the economy by 9.6% last year, leaving millions hungry and jobless. Hopes for a strong rebound after the country's worst post-war recession evaporated with a recent fresh COVID-19 surge. Most of the vaccine rollout remains over the horizon.
Yet for all these setbacks, Duterte has remained hugely popular in this country of around 110 million. His public support rating stood at 91% according to local pollster Pulse Asia late last year. That bucks the historical norm for presidents who see their popularity dip as their terms wind up.
Duterte's popularity has fueled the rise of his daughter as his potential successor. She would also be ideally placed to watch his back after he leaves office.
Among over a dozen possible candidates, Sara garnered 27% in a Pulse Asia poll conducted in late February and early March -- more than double the 13% scored by her closest rival. Philippine elections are won by a plurality -- the candidate simply with the most votes -- and vice presidents are elected separately.
There is no precedent in Philippine presidential history for a son or daughter immediately succeeding a parent -- but there is one for the mayorship in Davao, the longtime operating base of the Dutertes.
Sara Duterte Carpio, often called Inday Sara, is a 42-year-old mother of three. She is currently the mayor of the southern city, which Duterte ruled over for more than two decades. His daughter for a time served as his vice mayor, and in 2010 they swapped titles to circumvent a rule on term limits.
Like Duterte, Sara is a lawyer, rides motorbikes and comes across as a humble but tough politician -- an impression she enhanced by punching a court official on national television in 2011.
Her political clout extends beyond Davao. In 2018, she helped oust the speaker of congress, Pantaleon Alvarez, after the pair clashed over issues that included Sara's formation of her own regional party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago (Alliance for Change).
In 2019, senatorial candidates sought the endorsement of Hugpong and Sara's backing was so in demand that she endorsed 13 hopefuls despite only 12 senate seats being up for grabs. Nine of them won, weakening the opposition bloc in the upper chamber.
"Now it's Inday who is taking the lead -- Inday is the one who controls political [decisions]," Duterte said in 2019, using a personal affectionate moniker for his daughter. Last year, she was confirmed as an army reservist with the rank of colonel, boosting her ties with the military, which her father has always courted.
Unlike her father, who vowed not to visit U.S "in this lifetime" following criticism there of his war on drugs, Sara has been flexible in foreign relations. Last year, she joined a U.S. State Department leadership training program in Washington. She has accompanied Duterte on official visits to China, Japan and other countries.
"Run, Sara, Run" banners and tarpaulins with her face have gone up all over the country. While her profile rises, Sara continues to reject the enticements. "I believe that even if we will not run for president, in our show of strength and unity we are able to uplift many Filipino families in need," Sara said in a video message uploaded on social media on March 1.
Among the prospective candidates who trailed Sara in the survey are Duterte allies. The most notable is Ferdinand Marcos Jr. -- son of the late dictator -- who came in second with 13%. Marcos recently lost a four-year legal battle to unseat Vice President Leni Robredo, the opponent he lost to by a slim margin in 2016.
Duterte is an ally of the Marcos clan, which remains highly influential in the country's north. Duterte facilitated the embalmed old dictator's contentious "hero's burial" in 2016, infuriating families of martial law victims.
Senator Manny Pacquiao, who heads Duterte's ruling PDP-Laban party, came in fifth with 11% in the same poll. The boxing icon, whose humble beginnings in Mindanao have been immortalized in a movie and on television, is considered a national hero. Soldiers and rebels used to declare unofficial ceasefires to watch his fights.
While the Duterte coalition is strongly placed for now, recent presidential derbies show early leads are no guarantee of victory.
Duterte's own story is a good example. Benigno Aquino, the outgoing president, anointed former interior secretary Mar Roxas as his successor, taking on opposition Jejomar Binay, then vice president, for the 2016 general elections. Political outsider Duterte came late to the race, promising to kill criminals. From single digit ratings, his popularity soared with televised debates, rallies and aggressive social media campaigns. He eventually secured 40% of the vote in the five-horse race.
A year ahead of the 2010 elections, billionaire and former Senate President Manuel Villar was gaining momentum until Corazon Aquino, a former president, died. The demise of the democratic icon who fought Marcos's dictatorship in the 1986 People Power Revolution catapulted her son into the limelight. He promised to replace an administration riddled with corruption.
Such precedents give the opposition some hope of a turnaround.
"It's too early -- if you look at the last elections, those who led the survey at an early time lost," said Antonio Carpio, a retired supreme court magistrate and convenor of 1Sambayan (One Nation), a multi-sectoral group that was formed in March to unify the fragmented opposition that has so helped Duterte consolidate support.
"The pandemic has changed the political equation...because the economy is very bad," Carpio told Nikkei Asia.
A respected voice on the South China Sea dispute who has publicly lectured against Beijing's territorial expansionism, Carpio wants to make the maritime dispute a key election issue -- and hit Duterte where he is vulnerable. Carpio criticized Duterte for not standing up to China, and argued that protecting the "West Philippine Sea" provides food and energy security for Filipinos.
1Sambayan has started talks with potential candidates and is organizing provincial chapters. An online poll will determine the group's candidates for president, vice president and senators ahead of October when candidacies are filed.
The group plans to engage politicians that are not identified with the Duterte camp. They include Aquino ally Leni Robredo, Manila's Mayor Isko Moreno, a former actor who has won praise for his city's pandemic response, and Senator Grace Poe, daughter of Philippine movie icon Fernando Poe Jr.
Senator Poe also ran for president in 2016, and her father lost by a narrow margin in the 2004 presidential election, which was marred by allegations of fraud.
In the Pulse Asia survey, Poe and Moreno each got 12%, and Robredo received 7%.
Ronald Holmes, the president of Pulse Asia, said the poll results are partly based on name recall. That will likely change over the next 12 months as candidates position themselves on issues. Concerns that resonate most with voters include the COVID-19 pandemic response, vaccinations, jobs, crime and corruption.
"It's a rather complicated thing and you will see swings and shifts in voter preferences," Holmes told Nikkei. "It can change quickly,"
Philippine elections are based more on personality than policy, which is symptomatic of the weak party structure. Politicians often switch sides before and after elections, reflecting the part patronage plays in the system. "It's unpredictable because you are not dealing with parties," Holmes said. "We don't have electorates."
But Holmes sees one advantage already for the Duterte camp: "It takes resources and money to really make a difference in our elections." He gives the example of Bong Go, Duterte's longtime personal aide, who came third in the senate race in 2019 after government resources were mobilized to increase public awareness of him.
In March, Duterte said Go, who placed seventh with 5% in the poll, wanted to run for president next year. Go dismissed Duterte's remark as a "joke," but added he might change his mind if Duterte ran for vice president.
But while allegiance to such a popular president should help, candidates will soon have to start taking positions on hot issues to catch voters. "It is not whether you are with the opposition or administration -- it is to each his own," Holmes said.
The signals from Pacquiao, a key Duterte ally, are already revealing. Following criticism of the slow vaccine rollout, the senator revealed last week that he had written to President Biden to expedite delivery of at least 10 million Moderna doses.
And when asked by reporters about Duterte's response to Beijing's encroachments in the South China Sea, Pacquiao echoed the president's critics: "I find it lacking."