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Protesters burn effigies of Duterte and Marcos Jr.
Protesters burn effigies of President Rodrigo Duterte (top) and presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. ROLEX DELA PENA/EPA

The Philippines is set for a fiery election, even without any Dutertes (at least for now)

After five years under Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal rule, Filipinos will soon go to the polls to choose a new leader – and potentially a new direction for the country.

We now have a better idea who this new leader might be following last week’s filing deadline for candidates for the May election.

And as the candidates begin to jockey for position, it’s becoming clear there is no anointed successor to Duterte who might be able to carry on the legacies of “Dutertismo” – how his brand of populist politics has become known.

Rather, the 2022 election is shaping up to be another race for a minority government. Both the ruling party coalition and the opposition coalition have failed to pick consensus candidates and assemble unified campaigns.

The winning margin is likely to be small, and voters may see the worst of the country’s electoral politics, from the traditional use of “guns, goons and gold” (violent intimidation and vote-buying) to the new means of weaponising social media.

No Dutertes running (as of now)

The list of presidential candidates contains some familiar names, such as Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and boxing-champion-turned-senator, Manny Pacquiao.

But one name is conspicuously absent: Duterte. Rodrigo Duterte recently announced he was resigning from politics, but many Filipinos were doubtful he would actually leave. There was much speculation he might run as vice president alongside his daughter, Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao City.

Rodrigo Duterte
Duterte accepted his party’s nomination to run as vice-president, then changed his mind. PPD HANDOUT/EPA

However, the much-anticipated Duterte-Duterte ticket did not materialise. After his public approval ratings declined in recent months, Duterte decided not to run for the vice presidency.

Read more: How Filipino artists are responding to President Duterte and the 'War on Drugs'

This potential move would have been divisive, as he would have had to circumvent the constitutional ban on presidents running for re-election after a single term. He may have abandoned the idea because of fear of a public backlash – a June survey showed most Filipinos considered a VP run to be unconstitutional.

The president’s daughter, meanwhile, had been topping the polls of potential presidential candidates for months, but she also announced she would not run.

Sara Duterte has an ongoing rivalry with leaders of her father’s imploding party, PDP-Laban, and she has repeatedly refused to be dragged into the messy work of salvaging its future. Instead, she says she will run for reelection as mayor.

The rumour mill about a potential father-daughter campaign (or a run by either Duterte on different tickets) will likely continue until mid-November, the deadline for substitution candidates to file.

After all, Duterte has pulled this surprise before. In 2015, he used this election rules “loophole” to jump into the presidential race late – and then won. A repeat of this scenario is still the hope for many of his supporters.

Sara Duterte at a campaign rally in 2019.
Sara Duterte speaking at an election campaign rally in 2019. FRANCIS R. MALASIG/EPA

So, who is running then?

With neither President Duterte nor Mayor Duterte in the race at this point, the ruling coalition is split into several camps.

Alongside Marcos Jr., Duterte’s favoured police chief, Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, is also running. However, he is considered by many to be merely a placeholder in case Sara Duterte decides to run.

This means Marcos Jr. is the likely candidate from the ruling coalition.

Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr.
Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. greeting supporters in 2018. MARK R. CRISTINO/EPA

Despite being extremely worried about another Marcos or Duterte presidency, the opposition has yet to bridge the divide between the various anti-Duterte groups and deliver a consensus candidate. This is crucial for the opposition parties, as their numbers have been dwindling in parliament and they’ve been shut out from power for the past five years.

Read more: Maria Ressa: Nobel prize-winner risks life and liberty to hold Philippines government to account

Vice President Leni Robredo, however, has entered the race. But she is lagging in pre-election polls and the fragmented opposition could hurt her campaign. Some anti-Duterte labour and farmers’ groups are worried they could be sidelined.

Robredo’s talks with moderates who appeal to broader anti-Duterte constituencies, such as Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno, and Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, have also broken down.

Robredo’s supporters are fired up by the prospect of running as a more ideologically cohesive group. But there are worries a small party won’t stand a chance against the ruling party coalition in the election.

Moreno, meanwhile, is pitching a third way between the Duterte and anti-Duterte camps. The Manila mayor is running on a centrist campaign that can supposedly appeal to voters disillusioned with the illiberalism and pandemic mismanagement of the Duterte administration and the elitism and unpopularity of the opposition.

With his reputation as an effective and efficient mayor, his poll numbers are competitive, at least for now. But his centrist position makes him vulnerable to attacks from the loyal bases of both camps. More importantly, any pandering to Duterte or Marcos voters may cost him his democratic credentials.

Activists protest against Marcos and Duterte.
Activists protest last month to mark the 49th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by former President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. MARK R. CRISTINO/EPA

Stakes are high

In the coming months, Filipino voters will decide whether they want continuity, change, or a combination of these two things. The stakes are high, with the country still dealing with high daily COVID cases and a slow vaccination rollout, as well as a scarred economy just emerging from last year’s recession.

An opposition win in next year’s election could also mean Duterte may be tried for his violent war on drugs, both in domestic courts and potentially by the International Criminal Court, which has just launched a full investigation.

The election will clarify which direction Filipinos want to steer the country’s democracy – towards further erosion under a Marcos presidency, a return to liberal reform led by Robredo, or perhaps a more middle-of-the-road approach with Moreno. It’s a decisive election for the country at a critical time.

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