Why you should care
Sara Duterte’s increased presence on the Philippine national stage is sparking speculation of a run in 2022.
Sara Duterte first became a national figure in the Philippines in 2011 when, as mayor of the southern city of Davao, she was filmed punching a sheriff during a dispute over a shantytown demolition.
Since her father Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 presidential victory, she has been propelled further into the national spotlight. She has been seen alongside the populist strongman at official functions, even acting as first lady during the recent state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Now, only midway through her father’s six-year term, the pugnacious, motorcycle-loving first daughter is increasingly seen by Filipinos as a front-runner in the race to follow him into office.
Duterte, a lawyer, shares her father’s brawling style but has differentiated herself.
The 41-year-old politician and mayor of Davao City, where she worked alongside her father when he was building his own career in local politics, has not declared her intention to run in the 2022 race. But she has been quietly building her political base on the national stage over the past year, in what many see as an attempt to succeed her popular father.
Duterte would be the “strongest” candidate for the job because she shares her father’s “connection with the people,” said Imee Marcos, a newly elected senator and daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, last month.
Salvador Panelo, Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, said this year that he “won’t be surprised” if Sara Duterte becomes president.
Sara Duterte and Panelo were not available for interviews.
In terms of the online echo chamber, “Sara is a shoo-in already,” says Aries Arugay, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.
President Duterte has three other children, including Paolo Duterte, a congressional representative, but Sara is seen as the sole serious heir to her father’s political legacy. Filipino voters also like political dynasties: Two of the three most recent Philippine presidents are children of former ones. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator, told the Financial Times last year that he wanted the job.
Although Duterte differs from her father, a victory by her would be seen as entrenching the policies and political culture of a president who enjoys the support of a large majority of Filipinos, but has been criticized for his attacks on media and the judiciary, and a war on drugs that has killed thousands of people.
“She is different enough from Duterte for us not to panic over her potential presidency, but she’s similar enough to ensure that the institutional damages inflicted on our liberal democratic traditions will not be reversed,” says Richard Javad Heydarian, author of a book on the Philippine president and a fellow at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
Speculation about presidential succession has heated up amid unconfirmed reports that Rodrigo Duterte’s health is failing.
The 74-year-old president has been missing from public view recently for days at a time. He remained seated last week for the awarding of diplomas at the Philippine Military Academy, getting up from his chair to bestow only two. Duterte suffers from Buerger’s disease, a condition that causes inflammation of the blood vessels. He recently declined to confirm or deny he visited a medical center in Metro Manila.
If the health of the president were to turn significantly worse, it would intensify questions over the chosen heir to Dutertismo, the rough brand of populism he has brought to the Philippines.
Sara Duterte, a lawyer, shares her father’s brawling style but has differentiated herself during more than a decade in politics, during which she swapped the roles of mayor and vice mayor with her father.
When Rodrigo Duterte made a widely condemned rape joke about a slain missionary while on the campaign trail in 2016, Sara Duterte said she herself had been a victim of rape. She is seen as an advocate of both women’s rights and the poor.
“She’s a political personality in her own right,” says Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “There’s a perception among many Davaoeños that she’s better than the father — more organized.”
A run by Sara Duterte would benefit from the near disappearance from the political scene of the Philippines’ liberal opposition, which was thrashed in the 2016 elections and further decimated in midterm elections last month.
Last year, Duterte formed her own political party, Faction for Change, in a move analysts say will bolster her base in the outer regions of the Philippines — an essential element of seeking higher office in 2022.
Like her father, Sara Duterte has an eye for media-friendly splashes. She hit the campaign trail in the recent midterm senatorial election on the back of two big bikes, helping deliver a sweep for pro-Duterte candidates.
However, even with a growing base and the legacy of her father’s name, she has not been tested in a national election and there will be other contenders. Philippine investigative journalists have just begun digging into Sara Duterte’s wealth and that of her lawyer husband, Mans Carpio, a topic likely to resurface in any campaign.
“I think she has good political prospects because of her father,” says Antonio La Viña, a professor of law and politics at the Ateneo School of Government. “That’s the only reason she’s a contender: because she’s the daughter of the president, and the president has control of all the institutions — legal, governmental, and political — in the Philippines.”
Additional reporting by Guill Ramos in Manila.
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