The circus has opened. The show comes only every three years but it will be an entirely different spectacle. The audiences are entertained at home. There will be no free food but there will still be cash rewards for some lucky audiences.

The players have started switching places, breaking friendships and loyalties, and everyone tries to outdo each other’s acts to gain public attention.

But no one does it better than the puppet master who basks in the limelight under an unusual situation — the time of a pandemic.

For more than a year and a half, Filipinos got to listen to only one voice every week, dishing out directives on how to control the spread of the deadly coronavirus disease (Covid-19), which has killed more than 30,000 people and infected about 1.7 million.

Luckily over 96 percent of the unwell have recovered, but the virus has kept on mutating as more contagious and lethal variants have surfaced, threatening to overwhelm the country’s ill-prepared healthcare system.

Most of the time, the president’s once-a-week television address, usually aired hours delayed, does not produce crystal clear, coherent, and reassuring statements.

The president’s mouthpiece, Harry Roque, could hardly explain the directives. There were times he was completely wrong on what the president wanted to convey to the people.

For instance, Roque told reporters the president was only joking when he said face masks could be washed by kerosene. But the president was serious and said he was not cracking a joke.

For over 18 months, Rodrigo Duterte has been using the late-night broadcasts to attack his vice president, belittling her capability to run the government and declaring that women were not competent and qualified to run state affairs.

The president, however, is a big failure in managing the government’s pandemic responses, ruining the economy that has shrank by as much as 17 percent last year and plunging the country into its deepest and longest recession since the early 1980s under dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The public watched and listened to his weekly broadcast to hear how the government would address the toughest crisis to hit the country in years. They wanted to know the government’s plans to get the country out of the rut.

But Duterte’s messaging is not consistent. On most occasions, he does not talk about the pandemic. He would talk lengthily on his war on drugs, the Communist menace and anti-corruption efforts.

There were also insults on the vice president or his political foes and critics.

But there is a new twist in his “talk to the people” broadcasts. The president has transformed the once-a-week TV appearance into his own platform to harangue perceived political foes and shamelessly promote his allies, including Cabinet members who are planning to seek a seat in the Senate next year.

Duterte has become a one-man wrecking crew, giving undue advantage to his daughter, two-term Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is rumored to be preparing to run for president.

Of course, Vice President Leonor Robredo is his favorite punching bag, attacking her on every opportunity available.

He now focuses his tirades on former ally-turned bitter critic Sen. Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, the boxing icon who has resuscitated his small, regional political party as a potential vehicle for his presidential bid.

He is also zeroing in on the popular Manila City Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, commenting on his old, semi-nude pictures when he was still a struggling movie actor.

A few years back, he heaped praises on the mayor, saying Isko Moreno was much better than him.

The attack on Domagoso was tasteless and crude. It was a below-the-belt attack.

In fairness to Domagoso, he has not made any provocative pose in public since 1998 when he was first elected as a city councilor for Tondo district.

But Duterte could not be stopped. He was simply trying to demolish two perceived rivals of his daughter — Pacquiao and Domagoso. They are a threat not only to Sara but to his own political survival. He is in real danger of facing an inquiry before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Thousands of poor street-level drug peddlers and users have been killed since 2011 when he was mayor in Davao City until he rose to the presidency in 2016.

Duterte seems to fear that Pacquiao, the only eight-division boxing world champion, would take some votes away from his daughter in Mindanao, a known Duterte political bailiwick.

Pacquiao has a better narrative than his daughter who had merely inherited her position. Pacquiao has a more dramatic Cinderella story, rising from poverty to a billionaire sportsman-turned politician.

Domagoso has a more dramatic rags-to-riches story. His father was a dock worker. He grew up in poverty scavenging for food and selling used bottles and old newspapers to a junkyard.

The life stories of Pacquiao and Domagoso resonate with voters who love the underdog, unlike that of Duterte’s daughter who was born into a wealthy and powerful family. She never knew the hardship of the ordinary people.

If Pacquiao can steal votes from her, she has to work hard to get more support in the capital region and two adjacent provinces in Luzon where 40 percent of voters are concentrated. Domagoso is strong in Metro Manila and in Luzon.

There was a pre-election survey in June that showed Sara and Isko in a statistical tie as top contenders for president in the May 2022 elections.

Duterte believes he has nothing to lose by attacking Pacquiao and Domagoso. After all, he is not running for reelection. He is, in fact, helping his daughter by drawing all criticisms and freeing his daughter from the negative campaigning. He wants to be her shock absorber.

In the last presidential elections, Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Antonio Trillanes IV served as the wrecking crew of the Aquino administration, which supported then-Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas.

They were the one-two punch who destroyed the reputation of pre-election top contender, Vice President Jejomar Binay, and later, Sen. Grace Poe.

They forgot about Duterte. It was too late for them to stop his meteoric rise and eventual electoral victory. Cayetano even joined Duterte’s team.

Today, Duterte is the one-man wrecking crew. His entire government, on the other hand, is a monolithic marketing arm to promote his allies.

Forget Duterte’s cheap endorsement of some of his Cabinet members who want to become senators.

The entire propaganda arm of the government has been devoting time and resources to promoting the president’s former personal assistant, now Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go.

Bong Go enjoys daily media exposure through “Laging Handa” briefings, where the government also lays down its policies, programs, and projects.

Go, however, failed to capitalize on the extensive media exposure. Pre-election opinion polls showed him at the cellar, with a single-digit voter preference.

The respondents see him as the president’s shadow. He is, literally, standing beside the president, almost 24/7. Most people ask whether he is performing his job as a legislator rather than going around the country inaugurating “Malasakit Centers” and visiting fire victims.

The only time he could not be seen beside the president is when Sara Duterte-Carpio is around in a public event, and he retreats to the background.

It remains to be seen whether Duterte’s game plan to demolish his daughter’s perceived rivals and promote his own allies will work in the May 2022 elections.

He should also remember that his own popularity is not transferable. Based on a June survey, Duterte has a trust rating of 82 percent but this has not translated to his daughter’s own number, which has remained below 30 percent.

His tactics to insult his daughter’s perceived rivals could boomerang and strengthen popular politicians, like Domagoso.

In the end, he might be helping both Pacquiao and Domagoso win next year’s elections.