Marcos, Duterte at Each Other’s Throats
Said to be gripped by fear, former president has gone “off his rocker” says a former lawmaker
By: Viswa Nathan
The rift between President Ferdianand Marcos Jr. and his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte has widened to an unbridgeable abyss, with both accusing the other of drug use. On January 28, while Marcos was launching in Manila a national movement called Bagong Pilipinas (New Philippines) to solidify national unity and drive an economic development program, with Duterte’s daughter Vice President Sara Duterte in attendance, Duterte addressed a rally in his hometown Davao, in the southern island of Mindanao, telling his audience: “We have a drug addict for president; that son of a whore!”
Duterte then warned Marcos that he could be overthrown if he supported the House of Representatives’ move to revise the country’s Constitution and switch from the present presidential form of government to a parliamentary system with no term limit for lawmakers and ministers, and he called on the army and the police to protect the constitution. He also called on the island of Mindanao, with 27 provinces and 26 million people – about 20 percent of the country’s population – to break away from the nation. Marcos, who seeks only to revise the Constitution’s economic provisions to encourage foreign direct investment, but isn’t keen on a parliamentary system, waved it off as the effect of the highly addictive fentanyl, which Duterte has been using as a painkiller, muddling his mind.
This spat is rooted in a four-letter word. Fear. Fear on both sides. Marcos while taking over the presidency at the end of Duterte’s six-year term in mid-2022, was worried about Duterte’s overarching popularity across the nation and influence over the military and the police. When Marcos declared his candidacy, Duterte publicly disparaged him as a weak leader, a spoiled child with the baggage of his family, who is credited with having stolen billions of dollars from the country before being deposed in the 1980s.
When he was leaving office, opinion surveys claimed that in this country where machoistic behavior is applauded, the unpredictable Duterte commanded a 75 percent popularity rating, which had risen to 79 percent in December 2023, as opposed to 68 percent for Marcos according to Pulse Asia. Therefore, also recognizing Duterte’s cantankerous ways, Marcos had to tread a tricky path in his first year in office. So he chose to keep Duterte at ease by keeping the International Criminal Court investigating Duterte for his alleged human rights violation away from the country.
Now, however, Duterte has good reason to be very afraid. As a former lawmaker explained, he is now “obsessed with fear and in a state of panic” that Marcos could let the ICC grab him and prosecute him for the so-called Davao Death Squad when he was mayor of Davao, and Operation Double Barrel during his presidency that killed thousands in the name of cleansing the country of dangerous drugs. “Look at it: he is calling the army and the police to protect the Constitution, and at the same time calling for Mindanao to secede! He is off his rocker.”
In his self-interested effort to shield Duterte from the ICC’s reach, Marcos first figuratively stuck his neck out. In January 2023, when Marcos was just six months in office and the ICC authorized reopening the investigation into Duterte’s drug war, which had remained suspended since November 2021 at Manila’s request, Marcos’s justice secretary, Jesus Crispin Remulla, denounced the ICC move, calling it an “irritant” and saying that ICC “cannot enter our country.” Six months later, when the ICC was about to decide on sending prosecutors to the Philippines to collect information about Duterte’s drug war, Remulla asserted again: “They are to do nothing of the sort here. They have no relevance here…We’re a free country with its justice system.”
This strategy helped Marcos to keep Duterte appeased while he reorganized command lines and took a good grip of the nation’s reins. As his administration completed its first six months, the secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Benhur Abalos, asked full police colonels and generals to file their courtesy resignations while a five-person team investigated officers to cleanse the force. As a part of it, 49 members of the drug enforcement group that included 12 high-ranking officers were also ordered to surrender their firearms as they were found liable for drug-related irregularities. Marcos was now well in the saddle with European leaders acknowledging that human rights are upheld better under Marcos than under Duterte, although extrajudicial killings continue, albeit at a slower pace, according to Human Rights Watch.
Still, there remained a long way to go to realize the objective Marcos declared in his inaugural address: raising per capita GNP to the equivalent of US$4,256, uplifting the country to upper middle-income status by the time his administration reached mid-term. It called for expanding foreign trade and attracting foreign direct investment. In both, Duterte loomed large. Some of Manila’s trade partners, particularly the European Union, which granted more than 6,200 Philippine products duty-free access under its GSP+ scheme, which helped Philippines exports to the 27-nation market rise from a minuscule US$6.14 billion in 2014 to $11.17 billion in 2022, is determined that whoever seeks preferential access to the EU market must uphold human rights standards. Allowing ICC investigators access to the Philippines falls within that framework. Hannah Neumann, a member of the European Parliament who led a delegation to the Philippines early last year, reminded Manila that this condition of the European Parliament is “not going to go away.”
In the meantime, just over two months ago, the EU agreed to let Manila continue enjoying the privilege while it worked towards fulfilling human rights conditions. Just as it happened, the Marcos administration’s solicitor general, Menardo Guevarra, who was justice secretary with the Duterte administration, clarified that ICC investigators are free to visit the Philippines like any visitor with proper travel documents, and gather the information they want. “You can investigate in whatever way you want; you can talk to any person…interview any person,” but do not expect cooperation from the government.
Since then, matters have moved swiftly, and according to former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a Duterte nemesis, ICC investigators entered the country, conducted interviews, and gathered the information they needed. The ICC, said Trillanes, could soon issue arrest warrants against Duterte and his aides. Duterte and his associates then saw what was imminent. Ronald dela Rosa, Duterte’s first chief of police (now a senator), who is included in the ICC investigation for carrying out Duterte’s shoot-to-kill order in the drug war, demanded the president to be “man enough” to admit if he has allowed ICC investigators enter the country.
The credibility of Trillanes’s claim aside, the important question now is how the ICC would execute its arrest warrant. The court has no enforcement team. The Marcos administration, which refuses to cooperate with the ICC because of national sovereignty, can hardly be expected to execute the warrant. So the warrant will become as unworkable as the one the ICC issued against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It should have let Duterte continue to remain relaxed. But he panicked. Now, Duterte’s roar to have Marcos overthrown or for Mindanao to break away from the Philippines could go like a cry in the wilderness as leaders of the autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao have denounced his call to secede while the chief of the armed forces, Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said the armed forces would remain with its duty to protect the state against threats, whether external or internal. Duterte has a right to be afraid.
Viswa Nathan is Asia Sentinel’s Philippines correspondent