As Duterte Quits, Scandal Looms Among his Acolytes

Departure opens the gates for ambitious disciples

As the Rodrigo Duterte era moves towards its end, the scum within it has risen to the top in the form of Pharmally, the biggest financial scandal since the Napoles “pork” frauds of the Arroyo era, which ties together corruption in the purchase of substandard anti-Covid-19 supplies with profiteering Duterte cronies connected to China.

But the opposition is fragmented by outsize egos and the chances are that the next president will be little different and indeed could protect the Duterte legacy of extrajudicial killings, contempt for the constitutional process, authoritarian exercise of executive power and revival of large-scale, centralized corruption, which Duterte had promised to stop with his tough-guy approach.

The latest news from a very volatile election front is that Duterte will not run for vice-president – thanks, it appears, to surveys showing that, for once, most Filipinos objected to such an attempt to subvert the intent of the Constitution. Instead, his daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio, mayor of his home base in Davao City, has changed her own mind and will run for president in tandem with Christopher “Bong” Go (above, right, with Duterte), her father’s loyal servant. Go was previously Special Assistant to Duterte and though now a Senator appears to continue to play that role.

That lineup may not outlast the ambitions of another beneficiary of massive presidential fraud and corruption, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, better known as Bongbong Marcos. Despite the family’s many-times proven record of plundering the state, the Marcos name still provides a strong vote base not just in Ilocos and Eastern Visayas from which Marcos and his mother Imelda hail, but among those elsewhere who seem to like “strongman” rule, however corrupt.

Will Bongbong step aside for Sara? Or accept second fiddle, making another attempt at the vice-presidency which he lost to Leni Robredo in 2016?

Leni herself has yet to announce her candidacy but will almost certainly do so. Her current poll rating is low even though she is the choice of 1Sambayan, the group headed by former associate justice Antonio Carpio trying to forge unity among liberal forces to put laws, institutions and policies before personalities and authoritarian behavior. Criticized by some for being insufficiently bold and decisive, her modest demeanor and quiet determination may yet find support from a motherhood-centric nation.

Robredo apparently failed to do a deal with Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, himself a former police chief with an EJK record under Arroyo. Lacson’s running mate is Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, who has name recognition through his family and media role but not much else to offer.

Boxer Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao has finally hung up his gloves which will give him time for campaigning. If he persists in running for the top job as he promises to do, he could hurt the Duterte camp, particularly in Mindanao.

Another little known name on the national stage until recently is Isko Moreno – real name Francisco Domogoso – an effective mayor of Manila who makes much of having been born poor and having no past or present family members in politics. That makes him unusual. Though Pacquiao comes from an even poorer background in Bukidnon, Mindanao, his commitment to securing his own dynasty has been shown by getting two brothers into Congress.

Candidacies have to be filed by October 8 but switches and substitutions are allowed until late November. Polls are likely to remain volatile and the outcome in May significantly influenced by the number of candidates. Fidel Ramos won in 1992 with only 23 percent.

Of the candidates now lining up, only Robredo has a persistent record of criticizing Duterte on such key issues as the Drug War and EJKs, failure to defend the West Philippine Sea against China and mismanagement of the Covid pandemic through incompetence and apparent corruption.

Senators now behind the investigation into Pharmally such as Lacson and Richard Gordon were long in the Duterte-backing majority in the Senate. That they have turned investigators is evidence both of Duterte’s declining influence and the enormity of the sleaze with which the senators were confronted. The uncovering began not in the legislature but by an arm of government itself, the Commission on Audit which in its 2020 report flagged “deficiencies” in the allocation PHP67 billion (US$1.32 billion).by the Department of Health. Typically, Duterte raged against the Commission for doing its job.

 Of these, PHP42 billion were transferred to the Procurement Service of the Office of Management and Budget which came under one Lloyd Christopher Lao from Davao who previously worked for Bong Go. Among other things, the Procurement Service gave contracts worth many billions to a company named Pharmally to buy face shields and a variety of other pandemic-related goods from China. Pharmally had no track record and a paid-up capital of just PHP625,000. Its purchases were funded by loans via Michael Yang, a Chinese national based in Davao and with close contacts with Chinese diplomats and whom Duterte had brought into his inner sanctum as economic adviser.

The Senate investigation showed not only delivery of substandard and overpriced products but the personal acquisition by Pharmally executives of ultra-luxury cars. A desperate Duterte ordered his officials to ignore Senate demands to appear before it and used the House, which he controls via budget allocations to run an alternative “investigation”.

Voters may be too inured to corruption stories, too used to having little choice but to vote for dynasts of one sort or another for Pharmally to matter much by the time of the May election. However, historians may look back on Pharmally as typical of the Davao-based links between politics, Chinese business and China’s national interest which did so much damage to Philippine national interest under Duterte.

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