Landing Duterte’s Jet Ski Presidency


Rodrigo Duterte should be as anxious about the May 2022 elections as the opposition. Like other Presidents since Ferdinand Marcos, he knows that the elections are an inflexible termination of all the power he has exercised. It will be as if Duterte, like an appliance, is unplugged from the power source.

Teaser Image Caption
The Contenders: Manny Pacquiao, Bong Go, Bongbong Marcos, Sara Duterte-Carpio, Leni Robredo, Isko Moreno, and Grace Poe

Symmetrical Anxiety

Duterte will field a presidential candidate who will protect him from prosecution that will certainly happen if he loses. Two previous Presidents, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo, were both charged and jailed for plunder, with Estrada getting convicted but almost immediately pardoned by Arroyo. Duterte is more vulnerable to prosecution not only for plunder but also murder and treason. An indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity is also a possibility.

Duterte does not have a reassuring presidential candidate in his bench. One candidate could be Christopher “Bong” Go, Duterte’s long-time, loyal, close-in aide. Duterte has, Pygmalion-style, turned Go into a Senator during the last 2019 midterm elections. But Go does not have the appealing personality that will snag random votes on his own in an election. His stint as senator has not displayed any intellect nor articulateness expected of a Senator. Go was mortified by the prospect of being interpellated by Minority Leader Franklin Drilon when he delivered his maiden privilege speech, and again in May 2021 when he filed 15 bills on nationalizing provincial hospitals.

President Duterte with Christopher Lawrence 'Bong' Go, presidential aide turned Senator in the 2019 Election

Another possible presidentiable is Sara Duterte-Carpio, Duterte’s daughter who has succeeded him as Mayor of Davao City. Duterte has said he does not want Sara to succeed him and that the presidency is not for a woman. Duterte-Carpio also said she does not want to run for president. In the meantime, Duterte die-hard supporters have loudly and visibly started her presidential campaign.

Go or Duterte-Carpio cannot win the Presidency on the mere strength of a Duterte endorsement. The last five years of Duterte were an unmasking of the political fraud that he has been to many people. It is a difficult legacy to live down. At midterm, Duterte managed to continue the suspension of disbelief among his supporters with the help of fake news, coordinated unauthentic behavior on social media, and sustained coercive deployment of the police and the military. At term’s end, he would have squandered most of it.

A year of the COVID-19 pandemic progressively revealed the hollowness of Duterte’s management skills and rhetoric. His mismanagement of the pandemic caused deep and widespread poverty, hunger, sickness, and death. Left alone, the regular bureaucracy could have done better. Duterte, however, insisted on dictating the direction, approach, and tempo of the national response to the pandemic through nearly weekly midnight COVID-19 task force meetings, where he would nonchalantly give false medical advice on national television. He used his trademark martial enforcement approach, treating the pandemic as a social control problem rather than a community health problem.

The Marcoses
Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. at the burial of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. at the Heroes Cemetery / Libingan ng mga Bayani in Taguig City, 18 November 2016

Lame duck distancing

Duterte could have turned to two erstwhile allies that had some popular appeal among a segment of the national population. There is Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who is on a quest to recapture the Presidency in vindication of the Marcos name. But Marcos has lost the May 2019 vice-presidential contest. He appealed and has lost with finality. Even Duterte could not reverse the close but unambiguous electoral results. The recount mandated by the Presidential Electoral Tribunal increased rather than reduce the lead of Vice-President Leonor "Leni" Robredo over Marcos.

Another Duterte ally, Manny Pacquiao, the president of Duterte’s PDP-Laban, is also determined to run for President. He cannot be dissuaded, as he believes his presidential quest is a matter of personal destiny and God’s will. Pacquiao was visibly peeved when members of his party issued a resolution endorsing the tandem of Sara Duterte and Rodrigo Duterte to run for President and Vice-President in May 2022. Elected Senator in 2016, Pacquiao holds the record of having the greatest number of absences in Senate sessions.

Marcos and Pacquiao respond to a different drum, and Duterte will not be assured that either of them  would or can protect him. Both would likely run even against Duterte’s handpicked candidate.

Manny Pacquiao
Manny Pacquiao, Filipino professional boxer, senator and the party president of the ruling PDP–Laban party.

Over the medium-term, one should look at more significant and stable drivers of public sentiment rather than sentiment as captured by public opinion surveys. High initial popularity yet loss in subsequent elections are not unknown in the Philippines, as shown by the loss of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the loss of Manuel Villar in 2010, and the dark horse win of Duterte himself over Grace Poe and Manuel Roxas in 2016.

Public opinion surveys are always conservative because they ask people to decide between an established point of reference, the President, and an emergent set of contenders. The asymmetry of media projection itself dictates the results. When the election season comes, this asymmetry is redressed, and the administration and counter-administration narratives, unforgiving under Philippine electoral campaign conditions, become an entirely different context altogether.

Given that the elites that are benefiting directly from the Duterte regime, are identified with the Davao group of politicians, elites, and businessmen who have cornered top political positions and business deals, it is unlikely that the rest of the elites will want this narrow distribution of the spoils to continue under a Duterte-anointed regime.

The narrative will begin to turn when the people with money, influence, and power shed their timidity to start voicing and articulating their interests. The submerged weight of public sentiment becomes mobilized.

Hidden Iceberg
Hidden iceberg of Filipino public sentiment

Victory by other means

This is why many people fear the May 2022 elections might get stolen. The incumbent President has tremendous control over resources that can be used for the campaign. But there are limits to this option. It is one thing to use trolls to influence public opinion during campaigns, and another to outrightly cheat in the elections through the usual tactics - guns (assassination), goons (intimidation), gold (vote-buying), glitter (star endorsers), gimmicks, and glitches (electronic cheating). A mandate obtained through massive fraud will cause unending political instability.

More worrisome would be the anticipated attempt of the Chinese Communist Party to influence theresults of the elections to continue promoting its interests in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The WPS isthe Philippine government and Filipino term for the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone portion of theSouth China. Last year, Facebook detected coordinated inauthentic behavior originating from Chinapromoting  Sara Duterte for President. Facebook deleted the errant accounts and publicly reported thesame. Rodrigo Duterte castigated Facebook for this action, accusing it of bias. Undeniable evidence ofsuch interference, however, will hurt China’s international image.

The most desperate attempt Duterte could pull off to stay in power is to declare a coup d’état through a Revolutionary Government. Many supporters had unsuccessfully goaded him to do this over the past five years. Duterte could opt to declare the indefinite postponement of the May 2022 elections due to terrorism and the pandemic. Filipinos will not countenance the effective cancellation of an election.

Sara Duterte-Carpio, the incumbent Mayor of Davao City and the second child of President Rodrigo Duterte

Even a win can be a loss

Even if Go or Duterte-Carpio wins as President, it is unlikely that either can make good on Duterte’s failed promises. Neither will likely be able to attract a top-caliber cabinet with competence, leadership, and integrity, as if the Duterte regime did not happen.

The deep and widespread damage to the society and the economy due to COVID19 will have become conflated with the separate damage Duterte’s populist style has wrought. In the May 2022, they will be inseparable in the minds of the people.

In March this year, COVID-19 cases surged once more. Government imposed different levels of community quarantines. This caused further hardship on daily-wage workers. The government has since shifted to a more relaxed general community quarantine to hopefully mitigate the economic decline. All the while, Duterte and his Inter-Agency Task Force, composed mostly of retired generals, continue to conduct their usual weekly televised discussions.

Dissonance Network

Amidst the heightened sense of desperation, 26-year old Patricia Non put up a bamboo table stocked with vegetables, canned goods, noodles near her home in Quezon City. Her sign read: “Give what you can, take what you need.” The national response was electric. This first community pantry took off in social media, instantaneously resonating with people across the archipelago. In a week, this gesture has been replicated in over 300 such community pantries across the country. In a month, over 1,000 such community pantries have been set up, almost each one citing Patricia Non’s community pantry as their inspiration. The community pantries have continued to mushroom out of a widespread pent-up sentiment of deprivation. The landscape is marked by long lines that ribbon through neighborhoods as people resort to community pantries to put food on the table for their families.

Maginhawa Community Pantry in Quezon City

Government officials in police, military, and communications agencies immediately grasped the implication of the sprouting community pantries as undeniable demonstrations not only of the inadequacy of government assistance, but also dissatisfaction with government’s handling of the pandemic. They quickly went onto social media to denounce the pantries as community inspired propaganda. Under the new anti-Terror Law, military charges of communist ties have had real fatal consequences to “red-tagged” persons. Non had to temporarily stop operating for fear of her and her companions’ lives, until the Mayor of Quezon City assured their safety.

Bursting the Jet Ski bubble

The proliferation of community pantries coincided with the proliferation of nearly 300 Chinese maritime militia vessels at the Julian Felipe reef well inside the WPS. If the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty, hunger, and the new anti-terror law were the defining political issues domestically, the Chinese encroachment in the WPS was the defining political issue in external relations.

Aerial photos of the phalanx of Chinese vessels anchored side by side elicited a shrill alarm among the people and media. Duterte, as usual, attempted to downplay this situation. The people reminded Duterte of his election promise to take a jet ski and plant the Philippine flag at the outer boundary of the WPS. Nothing delighted the people more during Duterte’s debate with other candidates than this jet ski pledge. It was his response to a fisherman who asked whether, as president, he would defend the rights of fishermen and the Philippines over the WPS.

Piqued by this nagging public, Duterte said the jet ski statement was a joke, and those who believed it were stupid. He let on that the jet ski promise was made in the heat of an electoral campaign, and should not be taken literally. It was thus that Duterte broke the jet ski myth, shocked the nation, and shot himself on the foot.

Rodrigo Duterte, the 16th President of the Philippines. His term ends on 30 June 2022.

Duterte’s Debate Debacle

Duterte’s jet ski letdown coincided with a bigger injury. Duterte, noting that former Justice Carpio was now “just another lawyer”, challenged the latter to a debate on the WPS issue. Carpioquickly accepted. But the people had gone to town about the debate. Malacañang was in a tizzy. Therewas no way Duterte’s level of knowledge and forensic skills could match Carpio, not the least on the WPS issue. It was obviously meant as a bluff. Duterte extricated himself from the debate, designating his spokesman, Harry Roque, to take his place.

In Philippine culture, challenges like these recalibrate reputations for power. Social media went abuzz with licentious memes depicting Duterte’s cowardice. The more Duterte wiggled out with lame excuses, the more inextricable his embarrassment became.

Embellishments and related stories were not difficult to come by. When Duterte was Mayor, he challenged a media person, Waldy Carbonel, to a gun duel in front of the Davao City hall at 9:00 in the morning. On the agreed upon date, Carbonel showed up on time. Duterte did not.

Re-balancing the Electorate

The May 2016 Duterte myth of quick, efficacious governance was most resonant with Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). Temporarily uprooted from the Philippine society, they relished the psychological identification with a heroic figure. Duterte’s campaign leveraged their support to solidify and mobilize the larger public for Duterte.

Duterte will likely depend on this same OFW mechanism for the May 2022 elections. The potential counterfoil to this fanatic OFW fringe is the youth vote. A broad Eleksyon 2022 Koalisyon (election coalition) has been formed to get at least 7 million youth and deactivated voters registered for the May 2022 elections. As many as 15 million registrants can be added as only 58 million of 73 million Filipinos of voting age are currently registered. The 18-29 year old millennials, Gen Y and Gen Z, may have more thoughtful reflections about the state of governance, the economy, and society when they vote.

Vice-President Leni Robredo
Leni Robredo, the 14th and incumbent vice-president of the Philippines, also the chair of the Liberal Party (LP)

A counterpoise of service and civility

Over the past five years, Vice-President Leni Robredo has consolidated her position as the default opposition presidential candidate to Duterte’s anointed candidate. In her consistent, systematic, professional attention to government tasks to be performed, problems to be solved, assistance to be given, and feedback to be heard, she has made Duterte look like a rearing bull, snorting, and threatening. She had been such a thorn on Duterte’s side that he has tried various approaches to keep her down. Duterte stripped Robredo of her cabinet position as Chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council during the first year. Robredo managed to be relevant and resonant to people’s needs across the archipelago without the need for a cabinet post. Duterte shifted tactics, appointing her to chair the Anti-Drug Coordinating Council. Robredo surprised everyone, including Duterte, when she accepted what looked like a trap. Robredo navigated the uncooperative anti-drug bureaucracy. When it was clear her performance would embarrass Duterte instead of her, Duterte fired her. Robredo quietly completed and submitted her report, a concise, professional, balanced look into the black box of Duterte’s anti-drug war.

Leni Robredo
President Duterte administered the oath of office to Vice-President Robredo on 12 July 2016

Uniting the Opposition

In February this year, former Associate Justice Carpio, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, former Education Secretary Armin Luistro, and others convenors launched 1Sambayan (One Nation). This expanding broad coalition of political parties and groups from extreme ideological left to extreme right seek to select and present a united slate of candidates to defeat Duterte’s team in the May 2022 elections.

The 1Sambayan will help generate campaign resources for the candidates, from the usual private sector donations to contributions from ordinary citizens through online platforms. It will not only be a selection mechanism for the united presidential and vice-presidential candidates of the Opposition; it intends to be a continuing scaffolding for good programmatic governance for at least the next two decades.

The 1Sambayan program of government so far contains non-negotiable planks: (1) the defense of Philippine sovereign rights over the WPS; (2) the end to the EJK-oriented war on drugs of the Duterte administration; (3) the pursuit of Constitutional reforms during the first two years of the next Administration; (4) the formation of a Truth Commission to exact accountability for the excesses of the Duterte administration; (5) the surrender of Duterte and other officials should they be indicted by the International Court of Justice; (6) the modification of the anti-terror law; (7) a better way of managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vice-President Robredo has so far not confirmed she is running for President in May 2022. She may opt to run instead as Governor for the Province of Camarines Sur. To be eligible for this post, she has registered her residence in the Province.  

Should Robredo decide not to run, former Senator Antonio Trillanes would be the main opposition choice. Other prospective candidates on 1Sambayan’s list are Senator Grace Poe and Atty. Chel Diokno.

Regression towards the Middle: Homeostasis

The Filipino nation is straining for a homeostasis, a return to a new normal. The most direct way this can be done is to reverse the prominent and presumptuous role the military and the police have played in the Duterte government. Political institutions – Congress, the Supreme Court, constitutional commissions, and executive departments that have been corrupted or compromised need to be rehabilitated or recalibrated.

The Dutertes
The Dutertes (Clockwise): Sebastian Duterte, Kate Necesario, Mans Carpio, Sara Duterte-Carpio, Paolo Duterte, January Navares-Duterte, Elizabeth Zimmerman and Rodrigo Duterte

What seems to be the battle shaping up a year before the May 2022 elections will be different as the elections draw closer. It would be an uncreative Duterte regime to be canalized towards a Sara Duterte or Bong Go option, unpalatable as these have been pictured above. It would also be unimaginative for the opposition to be canalized towards a Leni Robredo option, no matter how the so-called “silent majority” has eschewed other options.

The May 2022 elections could see candidates that abandon purist positions (purist Duterte Die-hard Supporters and purist Liberal Party “Dilawan” partisans). The May 2022 is about offering an inclusive hopefulness to the Middle Forces, those Filipinos who have no strong partisan political ideologies or commitments. As in every presidential election, they are ready to be swept into a manufactured stream of shared hope. They need a wide-spectrum leader who can induce a suspension of disbelief, appearing bigger than life. Translated in real terms, this means that the next Philippine President may neither be Sara Duterte nor Leni Robredo.


Dr. Segundo Joaquin E. Romero, Jr. is presently a lecturer at the Development Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila University and the School of Government of the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila. He has been an Opinion Columnist of the Philippine Daily Inquirer since January 2019.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.