By Jenny Balboa
After an almost seven-year imprisonment, former senator Leila De Lima was released on bail in November 2023. In her speech, she thanked the Marcos administration for respecting the rule of law.
De Lima’s choice of words is not accidental. It was a loaded statement to fan the growing political wedge between the Marcos and the Duterte families – the UniTeam Alliance that won by a landslide in the 2022 Philippine elections.
Duterte’s vendetta was responsible for the incarceration of De Lima – his political arch-nemesis.
De Lima led the investigation into reported killings of alleged drug suspects and human rights violations linked to Duterte when he was Davao City mayor and president. De Lima’s release may widen the gap between Duterte and President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr.
The political struggle between the Marcos and Duterte camps has been going on for some time. The early months of 2023 saw the sudden removal of Duterte’s ally, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as Senior Deputy House Speaker.
There was no official explanation. But rumors were brewing that Arroyo tried to oust the Speaker of the House, Martin Romualdez, a cousin and close ally of Bongbong. Had Arroyo been successful, Bongbong would have been weakened and left vulnerable to the possibility of impeachment.
The removal of Arroyo infuriated Vice President Sara Duterte – Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter who considered Arroyo as her mentor and ally in Congress. Sara Duterte resigned from the Lakas–Christan Muslim Democrats party headed by Speaker Romualdez.
She also retaliated with a social media post accusing Romualdez of being a shameless monster.
A few months later, Duterte met her baptism of fire as vice president when she faced congressional scrutiny over her handling of confidential funds – discretionary funds accessed by civilian government agencies to support their discreet activities.
The congressional enquiry into Sara Duterte’s confidential funds and her political embarrassment led her father to publicly attack the House of Representatives as a “rotten institution.”
That drove the House of Representatives to issue a resolution to repudiate former president Duterte. This could be another way of showing that the House is no longer afraid of the former president.
In November, the House dropped another bombshell when the Chair of the Committee on Human Rights filed a resolution appealing to the Philippine government to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its investigation of Duterte’s war on drugs.
Vice President Duterte came to her father’s rescue with a statement where she claimed that allowing the ICC prosecutors to launch their investigations is unconstitutional.
Most recently, the congressional inquiry into the Sonshine Media Network International, well-known for its close ties to former president Duterte, is viewed as punishment for attacking the House Speaker. The inquiry also serves to neuter the Duterte family’s propaganda machine.
The knives are out, and the political battle lines have been drawn between the Marcoses and the Dutertes. Political loyalties and alliances are shifting as well.
The political party of former president Duterte — the once powerful Philippine Democratic Party–Power of the People — is now practically emaciated. Less than 10% of its original membership remains as political butterflies abandoned the Dutertes to flock to Marcos and Romualdez’s parties.
Even though she was previously considered a “president-in-waiting”, the implications for Sara Duterte’s political future could be grave. Duterte’s approval rating suffered a double-digit decrease from 82% to 70% in October 2023. Duterte’s trust rating had not shown signs of recovery as of the latest survey in December 2023, and fell even further.
With limited access to government resources to boost her public image, her political ambitions could be in jeopardy. Cracks in the UniTeam will likely break Bongbong and Duterte’s relationship. If this scenario unfolds, the assumption of a presidential succession from Bongbong to Duterte would become uncertain.
Marcos Jr’s approval rating also plummeted in the third quarter of 2023 due to his lackluster record on inflation and continued allegations of corruption. Many are becoming disillusioned with his mediocre governance and failure to bring down the price of rice and other basic commodities.
Leading economists also red-flagged his pet economic project, the Maharlika Investment Fund, as a potential channel for rent-seekers to plunder government funds. This reminds people of the crony capitalism and kleptocracy that characterized his father’s regime. But unlike Duterte, Marcos’ trust rating slightly improved as of the latest December 2023 survey.
In anticipation of a political clash, aggressive power consolidation by the Marcos camp is expected. With a probable “Marcos versus Duterte” political showdown in the future, how Bongbong performs and navigates rough political and economic terrain will be crucial in determining his place in Philippine politics.
Jenny Balboa is a Lecturer at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and at the Department of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies, Hosei University.
This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and is republished under a Creative Commons license.