By Aie Balagtas See and Jeoffrey Maitem
In a stunning move, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced Saturday that he would bow out of politics when his six-year term ends next year and not run for election as vice president in the May 2022 national polls.
The Philippine leader, 76, also endorsed his former long-time aide, Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, as his party’s official vice-presidential candidate.
In August, Duterte had said he would seek election to the country’s second highest office, as the prospect loomed of international prosecutors moving ahead with investigating his administration’s war on drugs, which has left thousands of dead since the president came to power in mid-2016.
“Today, I announce my retirement. I thank you all,” Duterte said, to the surprise of reporters, as he accompanied Go to an electoral registration center in Manila, where the senator filed his official papers for a vice-presidential run. Many Filipinos had expected Duterte to be a running mate for a presidential bid by Go.
The political opposition had called on the public to defy Duterte’s initial decision to seek the vice presidency. On Saturday, the president himself acknowledged that various surveys indicated that the public did not want him to run for election to another public office.
“And so in obedience to the will of the people, who after all placed me in the presidency many years ago, I now say to my countrymen that I will follow your wishes,” said the president, whose time in office is restricted to a single six-year term, as stipulated by the Philippine constitution.
Other ex-Philippine presidents had sought election to other offices but none had sought the vice-presidency after serving as commander-in-chief.
Duterte’s announcement creates an opening for his popular daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is the mayor of southern Davao City, to run for president. She had said earlier that she would only join the slate of presidential candidates if her father withdrew from the electoral race.
The Philippines, a country of 110 million, will hold a general election next May to choose a successor to Duterte and his deputy, as well as fill 12 Senate seats, all 316 House seats, and some 18,000 official positions ranging from governors to mayors and town councilors.
Go, the president’s most trusted and loyal man, earlier on had promised Rodrigo Duterte that he would serve him for “as long as he lives.”
The original plan, according to analysts, was for Duterte to run as a deputy to Go, and then rule the country by proxy. But Go’s popularity took a hit amid a corruption scandal tied to the Duterte administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Given that President Duterte decided to withdraw his acceptance of nomination, I am here to take on the challenge of PDP-Laban vice presidential candidate,” Go told reporters.
“I have decided to run as vice president to be able to continue the programs for real change begun by President Duterte,” he said.
If elected as VP, the senator said he would continue Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.
Go dared critics to “let the public judge if their children feel safer now with less addicts and crime on the streets.”
“What was started should not go to waste, that is why in the next six years I promise to continue protecting the lives and dreams of our children,” he said.
Duterte, meanwhile, is facing two complaints before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. One was filed by a former police officer and a self-confessed assassin, who accused Duterte of ordering the killings of opponents and criminals when Duterte served as mayor of Davao.
The second was filed by relatives of several people killed during the counter-narcotics campaign.
In June 2021, Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s then-chief prosecutor, asked the court’s pre-trial chamber for a greenlight to investigate thousands of extrajudicial killings that took place under Duterte’s drug war from mid-2016 until March 2019. In September, a three-judge ICC panel approved the request.
Split within ruling party
Duterte announced his retirement a day after world-renowned boxer and Sen. Manny Pacquiao filed candidacy papers for the presidential election.
Other politicians who have said they would seek the highest office are Manila’s popular mayor, Francisco Domagoso and Panfilo Lacson, a veteran senator and former national police chief.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the Philippines’ late dictator, has said he was also considering running, but has not announced a decision yet. Opposition leader and Vice President Leni Robredo – perhaps the most qualified in the field of potential contenders – has been nominated by anti-Duterte forces. She too, however, has yet to file her candidacy.
In the Philippines, voters elect their president and vice president on separate tickets. This means that holders of the top two political offices could be from rival parties or partisan factions, as is the case with Duterte and Robredo.
Pacquiao and Duterte, meanwhile, are erstwhile allies members of the same party who have been feuding publicly, with the former criticizing the president for his administration’s poor handling of health services amid the pandemic.
On Saturday, Duterte’s faction at the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino – Lakas ng Bayan (PDP Laban) insisted that the retired boxing star appeared to have given up his fight for the party, by filing his candidacy under the Progressive Movement for the Devolution of Initiatives (PROMDI) – a relatively unknown party based in the central Philippines.
Pacquiao had said he was still waiting to hear from the Commission on Elections on whether he could run as a PROMDI candidate, a decision which could come by December.
“Senator Pacquiao claims that he is the legitimate President of PDP Laban and even called his own national assembly where he accepted their nomination as presidential standard bearer and yet he is running for president under PROMDI,” said Melvin Matibag, secretary general of the wing at the PDP-Laban party that backs Duterte.
“Let’s call a spade a spade. If that is not abandonment of PDP Laban, I don’t know what is,” Matibag said.