Southeast AsiaPolitics

The rise and rise of Sara Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's powerbroker daughter has emerged as a unifying political force and possible future national leader

Mindanao, August 31, 2018 5:05 PM (UTC+8)
Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

If then Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte was known as “The Punisher” for his tough tactics on crime, Sara Duterte-Carpio, his daughter and now incumbent mayor of the same city, has captivated Filipinos as “The Puncher.”

Captured on video punching a male sheriff leading the demolition of a squatter community seven years ago, Duterte-Carpio, also often referred to simply as Duterte, has since emerged into a political kingpin ahead of next year’s mid-term elections some already see as a referendum on her father’s up-and-down presidency.

Then in her first stint as city mayor, Duterte-Carpio boxed the sheriff for ignoring her appeal for a two-hour deferment on the destruction, an unexpected violent outburst that was loudly cheered by those who were standing off against the government’s demolition team.

Fondly known as “Inday Sara” by her constituents, Duterte-Carpio was first elected into office as a vice mayor in 2007, in a successful father-daughter tandem that reaffirmed the Duterte family’s decades-old political grip over Davao City.

Duterte, meanwhile, earned his “Punisher” moniker through a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs that killed more than 1,000 mostly poor residents, with many of the extra-judicial hits carried out by the so-called Davao Death Squad allegedly backed by the then mayor.

It’s a policy that catapulted him to the nation’s highest office in mid-2016 and is now being implemented to lethal effect nationwide. Duterte-Carpio agreed to run for Davao City’s mayor that same year as part of a deal with her father, who threatened not to run for the presidency if she did not seek the post. She won in a landslide.

President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and his daughter Sara Duterte at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018 in Boao, Hainan, China, April 10, 2018. Photo: AFP

Now, nearly halfway through Duterte’s six-year term, the controversial leader’s popularity is sagging amid mounting political and economic problems. But while the father’s star may be fading, the daughter’s is burning bright, political analysts say.

It’s a rise that has mesmerized local media. Reports have noted that while Duterte-Carpio often mimics her father’s trademark tough talk, she more favorably inherited the good looks of her mother, former flight stewardess Elizabeth Zimmerman, Duterte’s divorced ex-wife.

In February, Duterte-Carpio, a trained lawyer and mother of three, launched her Hugpong ng Pagbabago political party, which has since built alliances with important political actors and families.

Analysts say the party is fast-emerging as a new political force that could eventually catapult Duterte-Carpio to the presidency after her father’s term ends in 2022. The elder Duterte is 73-years-old and reportedly suffering from various health maladies.

Those who have challenged his daughter’s rise have suffered politically. At the time of the party’s formation, then House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a close Duterte ally, referred to it as an “opposition party.” She fired back with now characteristic Duterte family invective.

“If you’re an asshole in Congress, don’t bring that to Davao, leave it in Manila,” she wrote on social media at the time. “How dare you call me part of the opposition? You’re so thick-faced. You messed with the wrong girl.”

Davao City mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio makes a point. Photo: Facebook

Duterte-Carpio formed her new party in part to counter the full slate that Alvarez planned to field in Davao del Norte province in the 2019 elections under the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino – Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) party.

The PDP-Laban has been in turmoil ever since Alvarez was removed as House Speaker on July 23, in a political coup that stole the show from Duterte, who was set to deliver his third State of the Nation Address that same day.

The Lower House installed former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the representative of Pampanga province, as the new House Speaker while casting the once powerful Alvarez into the political wilderness. Days later, when Arroyo hosted a “social lunch” to thank those who supported her appointment, Duterte-Carpio was among those in attendance.

It has been widely speculated since that Duterte-Carpio was behind the Congressional coup, with reports of her making calls to influential congressmen from behind the scenes to build a consensus. (She has remained mum on the reports.)

She has also parried her own political troubles. Last year, her husband lawyer, Manases Carpio, and elder brother, Paolo Duterte, were implicated in a massive methamphetamine smuggling bust that Congress investigated through a blue ribbon committee. Paolo quit his Davao City vice mayor position amid the controversy, citing marriage problems.

Paolo Duterte (R), Davao City’s then vice mayor, during a Senate hearing on drug smuggling in Pasay, Metro Manila, September 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

They were both eventually cleared by the Ombudsman due to a lack of evidence. But the optics of the case were bad for the first family considering Duterte’s government stands accused of killing thousands of drug suspects in extrajudicial fashion.

The country’s political elite have nonetheless lined up behind Duterte-Carpio’s new party, including the Nationalist People’s Coalition of business mogul Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, Senator Cynthia Villar’s Nacionalista Party and the National Unity Party, which was formed in 2010 by local politicians from around the country.

Hugpong sa Tawong Lungsod, the local party founded by the elder Duterte, and the Ilocano Timpuyog of Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos, daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, have also allied with Duterte-Carpio’s now fast-rising party.

Duterte-Carpio has denied that her party’s alliances with other national and local parties are designed to bolster her run for the Senate next year.

But her popularity is clearly rising: a survey conducted by local pollster Pulse Asia in June showed she would be among the top five of probable senatorial winners at the 2019 elections if she runs.

President Rodrigo Duterte (C) walks with Sara (2nd R), Paolo (R) and the rest of his children after an oath-taking ceremony, Malacanang Palace, Manila. Photo: AFP/Presidential Communications Office/Stringer

Her party’s senatorial slate will also carry Imee Marcos, incumbent Senator Cynthia Villar, former National Police chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa and Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go, Duterte’s long-time trusted lieutenant, among others.

Twelve new senators will be elected to the 24-member body, seen by some as a last independent check and balance on Duterte’s rule.

Duterte-Carpio, who still claims she will not run for the Senate, has remained coy about a possible presidential run in 2022. Her father has frequently quipped about her as a possible future president, while politicians in his camp have already endorsed her potential candidacy.

As Duterte shows signs of his own political mortality, the next generation of the emerging dynasty looks increasingly well-placed to keep the first family on top.

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