Who will succeed Duterte?

As soon as rumors that President Rodrigo Duterte was seriously ill, political groups began consolidating their forces and allies to position themselves to succeed him.

It started on April 14, 2018, when Duterte told the military and police during a command conference in Malacañang that he’s thinking of stepping down because he was tired. “I am not angry with anybody. My chase against graft and corruption seems to be endless, and it has contaminated almost all government departments and offices,” he said. He then asked the military and police to find his “right successor.” He said that Vice President Leni Robredo doesn’t have what it takes to lead. He added that he rejects Robredo as his successor even if the Constitution states that she would replace him if he steps down. He said he prefers a junta to lead the country, if he’s ousted by the military.

A few days later, he changed his tune when he spoke before a group of broadcasters. He told them that if a leader “like” Senator Francis “Chiz” Escudero or former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. could assume the presidency, he would step down.

A news story on October 9, 2018 said that Duterte had hinted he might be seriously ill. He alluded that his doctors have suspected that he has cancer; however, he said that recent tests showed that he was not cancerous. Which makes one wonder: Was he just joking? Or, was he trying to smoke out his enemies into the open… and then punish them? Hmm…

With the various power blocs anticipating that his demise, sooner or later, would create a power vacuum, it raises the question: Who are the contenders vying to replace Duterte?

Which reminds me when Alexander the Great, lying on his deathbed in 323 BC and surrounded by his generals. One general asked him, “To whom do you give your empire?” As they watched him gasped his last breath, Alexander said, “To the strongest.” And since nobody stepped forward to assert that he was the “strongest,” the generals eventually agreed to divide Alexander’s empire among them to avoid a civil war.

While this is in no way saying that I am suggesting that Duterte is the Philippines’ Alexander the Great – although 16 million Filipinos see him as a “great leader” — he seems to encourage rivalry among his critics and rivals, which is a “divide and rule” strategy strongmen use.

The contenders

It didn’t take too long for the various power blocs to start consolidating their forces in preparation for any eventuality. There are at least six groups that are positioning themselves in the event Duterte steps down or is incapacitated.

Perceived as the most powerful and influential group is the nine-party super-coalition that Duterte’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, recently formed, which includes her own Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP). Joining forces with Duterte-Carpio are big political players Sen. Cynthia Villar of the NP, former President and now Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and the National People’s Coalition (NPC) that Danding Cojuangco founded when he ran for President in 1992.

The opposition Liberal Party (LP) is the party of Vice-President Leni Robredo, former President Benigno Aquino III, and former Senator Mar Roxas. They command the loyalty of the “Yellow Army” or “Yellowistas” whose provenance goes back to the Cory Aquino years.

A major bloc is the Marcos political dynasty — former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and his mother, Congresswoman Imelda Marcos, and sister, Ilocos Sur Governor Imee Marcos — and their die-hard Marcos loyalists. They have been positioning themselves for an eventual takeover of the presidency, three decades after the Marcos dictatorship was ousted. The Marcoses are close to Duterte, particularly Bongbong whom Duterte has “anointed” as his preferred successor.

The Magdalo group of former military men that mutinied against the Arroyo administration in 2003 remains a potent group even when they appear to have broken up. But they took their battle to the Congress. Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV and Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano are the two prominent Magdalo members who are now in Congress. However, the Duterte administration has accused the Magdalo group of secretly recruiting active military personnel. While Magdalo might not have enough strength to take over the government, they are allied with the LP.

Speaker and former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo leads another political group. She has been trying to revive her old political party, the Lakas-Kampi-CMD. But she might not be able to hold its members together, knowing that their loyalty could change easily. Besides, she doesn’t have the logistics that she had during her presidency. Meanwhile, she got herself an “insurance” by joining Duterte-Carpio’s super-coalition.

The most troublesome group is the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) that has been fighting the government for more than half a century. Led by exiled CPP Chairman Jose Ma. Sison, they have been perennially preparing for a takeover of the government. But they don’t have the logistics that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have.

Red October

Last September, the Duterte administration claimed that the CPP conspired with the LP and the Magdalo group in attempting to build a critical mass that would push for Duterte’s ouster. Known as “Red October,” the plot was to force Duterte to declare martial law nationwide; thus, provoking mass uprisings across the country. After investigating the plot, top AFP officials cleared the LP and Magdalo of any connivance with the CPP. The CPP dismissed the “Red October” plot. Instead they accused Duterte of creating a scenario to justify a massive crackdown on dissenters.

The CPP’s nemesis, the AFP, and the Philippine National Police (PNP) are the groups to watch. Working in tandem, they’re the strongest and, thus far, the only ones that can maintain peace and order in the country, which is the reason why Duterte favors them to succeed him in the event of his death. With an army of at least 100,000 of armed military personnel and an integrated force of 120,000 policemen, they can grab power anytime at their own choosing. The question is: Would they abandon their pledge to stay out of politics? But would they remain idle if mass disorder threatens the country’s security and stability? But this is precisely what the CPP’s alleged “Red October” plans to happen.

Déjà vu

But there is another group that could influence the direction of the country: the “brotherhood” of retired generals. Their collective influence –- gained over years of active military service -– could provide the stability the country needs at this time. And this is probably Duterte’s rationale — short of declaring a revolutionary government –for appointing retired generals to key positions in his administration.

The “brotherhood” is presumed to have the support of America’s military and intelligence communities based on decades of mutual defense cooperation. And this brings to mind where they have been since 1987. At that time, following the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship, the “brotherhood” provided aid to the revolutionary government of Cory Aquino to steer her through tough times and several coup d’états staged by rogue groups in the military. Is it déjà vu all over again?

Last October 13, when reporters “ambushed” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and asked him about “Red October,” he replied: “It’s no longer existent. It fizzled out because we uncovered and exposed it.” But regardless of whether “Red October” would happen or not, the nagging question remains: Who will succeed Duterte? And just like Alexander the Great, Duterte might not have the “strongest” to succeed him. And if there is nobody strong enough to take over Duterte’s “empire,” would a “civil war” ensue among the political contenders?

Meanwhile, Uncle Sam and Uncle Xi Jinping are keenly watching what’s happening right now. With Xi’s promise to Duterte that he’ll protect him from any plan to remove him from office, would Uncle Sam harness his forces to prevent any intervention – military or political – in the situation in the Philippines?
Like they say, “Beware the ides of October.”