By Karl Romano
President Rodrigo Duterte would likely step down to give way to the son and namesake of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos if the latter won a bruising electoral challenge to the vice presidency, his spokesman said Thursday.
The announcement came after Duterte said in at least two speeches this week that he was tired and ready to quit, exasperated by corruption in government and his failure to end the drug menace in the country.
Duterte however is prone to say things that his officials later walk back. And true enough, Duterte later qualified his statement by saying that he would step down only if Marcos Jr., known here as Bongbong, won his election protest against Vice President Leni Robredo.
“What he actually said is a real statement of exasperation and a genuine wish to step down if there’s a better leader or if there’s a qualified leader to take over,” Roque told reporters.
“And he has said that he thinks Senator Bongbong Marcos is one of the better qualified leaders to succeed him. If there’s development and he will win the protest and he becomes vice president, yes, he will make true his word,” Roque said.
Marcos Jr is contesting the 2016 vice presidential win of lawyer Robredo, a former member of congress and the highest opposition member in government. In the Philippines, the President and Vice President are elected separately.
Duterte had earlier named Robredo as a member of his cabinet, but later removed her. She had earlier expressed views against Duterte’s drugs war that has left thousands of mainly poor Filipinos dead.
Duterte in a speech before a group of Philippine broadcasters on Tuesday bluntly said that Robredo did not have the capability to lead the Southeast Asian country.
“I think deep in my heart, if you follow the succession and Robredo takes over, she won’t be able to handle it,” Duterte said, adding that he would prefer Marcos Jr anytime.
Duterte is a known supporter of the Marcoses, whose patriarch led the country for two decades, much of it under dictatorship that had left about 3,200 dead. Marcos was also believed to have plundered up to $10 billion from government coffers, plunging the country into a deep economic hole.
Marcos was toppled by a people power uprising in 1986, sending him and his family into exile in Hawaii where he died three years later.
But his widow, Imelda, and three children were later allowed to return home, where they have regained political clout. Daughter Imee is the governor of Ilocos Norte province, the family bailiwick, and Imelda is its congressional representative.
Marcos Jr., himself a former senator, however failed in his bid for the vice presidency, a slot that would have put him a hair’s breadth away from the highest office in the land.
One of Duterte’s first acts as president was to allow the transfer of Marcos’ remains to a heroes’ cemetery in Manila, which four previous presidents had strongly rejected. He had also publicly praised the Marcoses for helping him win the presidency by donating campaign funds.
In a brief statement Thursday, Marcos Jr thanked Duterte for expressing confidence in him, but said he should not quit as the “country and our people need you.”
“I thank the president for his faith in my abilities,” Marcos Jr. said. “But I urge him not to leave the presidency as our people still need him for the betterment of our lives and our country.”
The continuing growth of the death toll in Duterte’s drug war has served to chip away at his popularity.
On Thursday, thousands of activists, students, church workers and political opponents marched in northern Manila streets to commemorate the first death anniversary of Kian Loyd delos Santos, a 17-year-old student mistakenly slain by cops carrying out Duterte’s drug war last year.
They lit candles and offered prayers for delos Santos, as well as other children who have been killed in the drug war.
His gruesome death had galvanized opposition to the drug war, forcing Duterte to temporarily suspend the police operations. But he subsequently allowed them to continue after public anger had appeared to simmer down.
“The death anniversary is significant because this incident led to the President’s clarification on his official pronouncement on the drug war – he will support the police if the killing is legal, he will prosecute the police if the killing is illegal,” spokesman Roque said.
“It’s a warning to all policemen to make sure that they use force when there is absolute necessity and when it is proportional, otherwise, they will be prosecuted,” he said.
Felipe Villamor in Manila and Dennis Jay Santos in Davao City contributed to this report.