Duterte’s Long Game: Marcos Family Return, Critics say

The ugly divide between Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo, which culminated last week with his kicking her out of cabinet meetings, is raising concerns that his long game is to eventually turn the presidency over to a close ally, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

There is little doubt that Marcos is at the center of this political tussle. Duterte’s accommodation of the Marcoses, who were forced to flee the country in 1986 with stolen millions, and his repeated pronouncements that the younger Marcos might be the vice president anytime soon have fueled the suspicions that they are out to dislodge Robredo.

The President’s order to have the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Bongbong’s father, buried in the cemetery for heroes despite evidence he had falsified his war record triggered actions that only widened the political rift. Robredo said it was part of a “package deal” of court decisions favoring the Marcoses.

As his reign as president has worn on, Duterte has grown publicly closer to Bongbong and is believed to be pushing a vote recount of vice presidential ballots. Robredo received 14.418 million votes to 14.155 million for Marcos, a difference of just 263,473 votes. Robredo has repeatedly expressed alarm that her office would be stolen from her by the recount.

Robredo was the running mate of Manual A. Roxas, whom Duterte defeated for the presidency. She was notified by text message on Dec. 3 that she was no longer to attend cabinet meetings. Although Duterte appointed her to head the House and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), her agency’s budget was reportedly slashed and key personnel for the body haven’t been appointed. She resigned as HUDCC chair on Dec.5 and gave a press conference charging Malacañang Palace’s easing her out is part of a bigger plan to remove her as vice president.

Although Duterte remains enormously popular over his war on drugs, which has taken the lives of an estimated 5,600 people – 3,650 shot by death squads or police masquerading as vigilantes – he is raising deep public concern over a wide variety of issues beyond the killings including the Marcos burial and his vendetta against Sen. Leila De Lima over what he says are her connections to drug dealers.

Malacañang denied Duterte is trying to drive Robredo out of office, saying “irreconcilable differences” led to the cabinet ouster. Robredo has been outspoken in her opposition against the war on drugs and Duterte’s decision to have Ferdinand Marcos interred in the national shrine for heroes.

Duterte acknowledged later that his source of discomfort stems largely from his distrust of Robredo’s political party.

“The demonstrations that were held by the Yellow (LP’s color), their target is to oust me,” he told the Manila Bulletin, referring to protests that were held following the clandestine burial of Marcos in the cemetery for heroes on Nov.18.

As both asked their allies to help them protect their hold on their respective posts, Duterte sought to appease Robredo’s supporters on Dec.8 by saying that she would finish her term. “I will assure Leni Robredo and the rest of the Bicol region that you will have her until the very end of her term,” he said before members of the Federalismo Alyansa ng Bicol (FAB).

Three options

The focus of Duterte’s legislative program is to amend the Philippine Constitution to shift to a federalist system, devolving power to the states from the current unitary form of government, in which Manila is the center of power. Changing to either a federal parliamentary democracy or federal republic has been touted by the president as a weapon against decades-long unrest in some parts of the southern region of Mindanao.

“We cannot have a peaceful country…if you do not agree to a federal setup,” he told local media.

What has raised the fears of the return of the Marcos family is that Duterte has hinted that he wants to step down once the constitutional revision is done and the country is under federal rule. That has led some quarters to postulate that he is actually paving the way for Bongbong Marcos.

“It can open [the opportunity]. What we are talking here is the capacity to return and they have that. They have the network, if the traditional rules of the game are the same, meaning traditional politics, they can,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms and one of the resource persons in the Senate hearing on constitutional amendments.

This can happen under three scenarios – one, during the four-year transition period after the 1987 Constitution has been revised.

“At the rate President Digong (Duterte’s nickname) is pushing with his idea, I think he’s thinking of revising the Constitution within the two years of his presidency and the next four years will be transition and implementation period,” said former Sen. Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, one of the main federalism advocates.

“Duterte wants the charter change to be done by 2019. That means transition of 2019-2022. Duterte has said that if there will be a president that time, that wouldn’t be him,” Casiple said.

Even if a potential political vacuum must be filled in 2019, however, it will not be easy to push Marcos into the picture. Pimentel and Casiple said it would depend on the transition rules that will be set by the constitutional assembly or constitutional convention.

“The next four years will be transition, so meaning to say depending on the way it will be worded in the revision,” Pimentel said.

House speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said in an article in Rappler, a local news site, that under this system, there will be no need for a vice president. The government, he said, will be headed by a prime minister elected by the parliament. If Duterte gets what he wants, the Philippines will adopt a dual executive, semi-presidential system similar to France, where the prime minister will work with the president.

Under this system, Marcos can be a member of the parliament and then vie for the position. If the country shifts to a unitary, presidential form of government, Marcos can still run for president with the near certainty of enjoying Duterte’s endorsement.

That is the long game, Casiple said. “The Marcos family had already made the decision that they will return to power. Whether we will be under the federal system or not, they will go for the top position. That is the issue, not the burial. The burial is a public announcement that we’re here.”