MANILA – The honeymoon period for Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Vice-President Sara Duterte may soon be over, with analysts saying recent power struggles indicate the growing rift between the two most powerful people in the country.
Both are scions of well-entrenched political clans and heirs of former strongman presidents: Sara is the eldest daughter of Rodrigo Duterte while Ferdinand, the latter’s successor, is the only son and namesake of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
The second year in office for the so-called “UniTeam” has been rocked by instability – a far cry from election day in May 2022 when they became the first president and vice-president tandem in four decades to secure a majority vote in the Philippines.
The tensions came to a head earlier in November, when the president and the House of Representatives he controls made consecutive moves that political analyst Cleve Arguelles of De La Salle University in Manila described as an apparent attack on Ms Duterte.
The House is led by Speaker Martin Romualdez, the president’s cousin and close confidante. He is believed by political pundits to be harbouring presidential ambitions in 2028 like Ms Duterte, though both have not explicitly expressed their intentions to seek higher office.
“I definitely think this alliance is already over. For these tensions to be apparent in the public eye, it says a lot about the relationship inside the coalition,” Mr Arguelles said.
On Nov 9, Ms Duterte gave up on her bid to request for 650 million pesos ($15.6 million) worth of confidential funds in 2024 for both the Office of the Vice-President (OVP) and the Education Ministry, of which she is also secretary.
Weeks before this, lawmakers had repeatedly criticised her over the 125 million pesos that was transferred from Mr Marcos’ office to the OVP in 2022, and which Ms Duterte’s office spent in just 11 days.
This transfer is now the subject of a Supreme Court case filed by key opposition figures.
The feisty vice-president described her critics then as “enemies of peace”.
Days later, rumours in political circles swirled that lawmakers were allegedly planning to impeach Ms Duterte.
Mr Marcos said he was closely monitoring this plan but declared: “She does not deserve to be impeached.”
Then on Nov 13, a local court granted the bail request of former opposition senator Leila de Lima, the most high-profile political detainee during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, the vice-president’s father and Mr Marcos’ predecessor.
On Nov 28, the House ordered an investigation into a TV channel owned by controversial doomsday preacher and Duterte ally Apollo Quiboloy for allegedly spreading lies about Mr Romualdez’s foreign trips.
A day later, two House committees adopted a resolution that formally expresses the chamber’s position urging the Marcos government to cooperate with the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) crimes against humanity probe into Mr Duterte’s bloody drug war.
In a turnaround from his previous hardline stance against the ICC, Mr Marcos said his administration is now considering resuming the Philippines’ ICC membership, which Mr Duterte had earlier terminated.
“These personal attacks on Sara Duterte, the resolution defending Romualdez, this sudden, new-found courage of the House to criticise Duterte – all these measures disempower the Dutertes,” said ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Dr Aries Arugay.
“And they are coming from politicians who, at one point, were so loyal to the Dutertes”.
Dr Arugay believes the vice-president has no one else to blame but herself now that she is a target of political elites who were supposed to be her allies.
He said election results did indicate that Mr Marcos would not have won the presidency if Ms Duterte had not given way to him. But the vice-president’s mistake seems to be her insistence on “imposing her sacrifice” – or her expectation of reward from the ruling coalition for the election victory.
“She felt that she was entitled to everything because, in her mind, the alliance is asymmetric because she has more power than the other,” Dr Arugay said.
“The thing is, by the second year, it was really obvious that her every move was for 2028. Then she became a target, which is the normal reaction of everyone in the political establishment,” he added.
Despite the issues, Ms Duterte insisted all is well between her and Mr Marcos.
“No, there are no cracks in our alliance,” Ms Duterte told reporters on Nov 28.
Mr Marcos and Ms Duterte continue to enjoy high approval ratings, but their numbers significantly plummeted for the first time in the September Pulse Asia survey.
From 80 per cent in June, Mr Marcos’ rating has fallen to 65 per cent. Ms Duterte’s approval rating in September is higher than that of Mr Marcos at 73 per cent, but it is lower than her 84 per cent approval rating in June.
Expect more political clashes between the Marcos and Duterte factions if this downward trend continues, said Dr Arugay.
“All this tells you that in Philippine politics, political tides can continuously shift. Therefore, you cannot be arrogant. You cannot have hubris. Political karma is a regular thing,” he said. “There will always be a reckoning.”
And the political infighting may have just begun, as the Philippines is only about a year away from the campaign season for the 2025 mid-term elections.
The polls will not just be a referendum on the Marcos presidency but also set the stage for whoever has ambitions to succeed him in 2028.