It was a decade ago, before her father had become Philippine president, that Sara Duterte attracted national attention. A local sheriff had ignored orders issued by her, the mayor of Davao City, to delay the demolition of a shantytown. She arrived at the scene furious and punched him, not once, but four times in the head, in front of reporters.
Duterte, 43, a motorbike lover and tough talker, has a combative image that echoes that of her 76-year-old father, the populist president Rodrigo Duterte. It is widely believed that, as he nears the end of his six-year term limit, she will follow in his footsteps to Manila’s Malacañang Palace.
The younger Duterte has repeatedly said she has no plans to run in the May 2022 election. Analysts, though, are sceptical. She previously swapped places with her father as mayor of Davao City, where the family is extremely powerful. Already, banners have appeared across the country with the words, “Run, Sara, run”. According to early polling by Pulse Asia Research, she has a comfortable lead over all the other candidates.
The stakes for the Philippines could not be higher. Once one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, the country has been battered by the pandemic. It endured one of the world’s toughest lockdowns last year, and there is little hope of life returning to normal soon.
The Delta variant is overwhelming hospitals, and the country has administered enough vaccines to fully inoculate about 19% of the population. The Philippines is one of the few countries that has not reopened schools since the start of the pandemic.
There is also growing international scrutiny of its president’s infamously brutal approach to law and order. Just last week, the international criminal court (ICC) announced it would begin an investigation into the so-called “war on drugs”, in which as many as 30,000 people were killed.
Duterte Sr has responded to the ICC case in typically confrontational style. In a recent address, he claimed he wanted to slap the ICC judges. “If you hang me for all what I did, go ahead,” he dared the court, adding that he will only answer to Filipinos.
Duterte has announced that he will run as vice-president, stating this will give him immunity from prosecution. His close aide Christopher “Bong” Go was approved by his PDP-Laban party to run for president – though he has denied plans to do so.
Politicians have until the first week in October to declare their candidacies – but substitutions can be accepted until 15 November.
“It is very challenging for the opposition because, for one, they don’t have a single candidate,” said Pulse Asia Research director Ana Maria Tabunda. The president, who rose to power promising to eradicate drugs, remains enduringly popular at home, despite the pandemic and the international criticism over his record on human rights. “He is doing what he said he would do. That’s part of the reason they rate him so highly,” she said. While many are suffering economically, polling suggests voters do not appear to be blaming Duterte directly, she added, and instead consider the pandemic a global crisis.
The list of potential candidates for president is lengthy. Among those tipped to run are Manila mayor and former actor Isko Moreno; Ferdinand Marcos Jr, known as Bongbong Marcos, the son of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos; the boxing legend and national hero Manny Pacquiao; and the current vice-president, Leni Robredo, who has been the most critical of Duterte’s record on human rights. Panfilo Lacson, a senator, was the first to declare he would run, and has recently clashed with Duterte over corruption claims. Moreno, who some are pinning their hopes on as an opposition candidate, grew up in poverty in the capital, picking up old newspapers and glass bottles to sell on to a rubbish dealer, before he was spotted by a talent scout.
He has been on the receiving end of attacks from the president, with Duterte even seeking to mock him for having posed for steamy photos in his past life in showbusiness. “He has portrayed himself successfully as an action man,” said Michael Yusingco, a senior research fellow at the Ateneo policy centre. “The city of Manila has responded well to the pandemic in terms of vaccination, and in terms of buying medicine.”
Whoever goes up against the Duterte camp will face an uphill battle. Sara Duterte has automatically benefited from her father’s popularity, but she has also gone to great lengths to frame herself as independent, according to Yusingco. “What makes her different, people around her say, is that she is more organised, she is not as flighty as President Duterte,” he said. Sara Duterte’s foreign policy could also differ from her father, because she is believed to consider him too accommodating towards China.
Among the diplomatic community, she may present herself as a someone who is more responsive to human rights, said Carlos Conde, a senior researcher at the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “She will say, ‘OK I cannot stop the drug war but I can make it better, make it more humane… we will cut out the really abusive part of it,’” said Conde.
Killings related to the “war on drugs” continue across the country, including in Davao, an area the ICC has stated it will pay specific attention to during its investigation. It plans to look into killings that occurred in Davao between November 2011 and 30 June 2016, which overlaps with Sara Duterte’s previous stint as mayor.
Father and daughter share a tough approach to law and order but Sara Duterte does not adopt the extreme rhetoric of her father, who called the pope a “son of a whore”, joked about rape, once appeared to compare himself to Hitler and said he would be “happy to slaughter” millions of drug addicts in his war on crime.
Philippine elections allow the public to vote separately for president and vice-president, and it is possible both Dutertes could opt to run on separate tickets. Doing so would be less brazen than a joint effort, but would cement the family’s grip on power.
Even if it is just one Duterte – Sara – in the top job, it is difficult to see her failing to shield her father from the ICC, said Jean Encinas Franco, associate professor at the department of political science at at the University of the Philippines. “She’ll be her father’s daughter in the end, even if she likes to distance herself.”