Rodrigo Duterte won’t hand over power without a fight.

He would want to remain relevant after stepping down in June 2022 to influence politics in the country and keep his power in the shadows to shield him from potential lawsuits, including an indictment from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for thousands of people killed in his centerpiece program, the war on drugs.

Duterte must have a game plan. He won’t fade away that easily after announcing his retirement from active politics and withdrawing from his party’s nomination for vice president.

There could be a backdoor entry for him to remain a potent political force and manipulate events in the country.

In the last five years, he has shown his uncanny ability to remain highly popular despite the killings and mismanagement of government.

Last year, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, his approval rating was at 80 to 90 percent. It seemed the people were not blaming him for the collapse in the economy and the high rate of transmission of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) during that period.

Millions lost their jobs and livelihoods and the economy plunged into recession for the first time in 40 years due to quarantine protocols and one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns.

Only his officials, particularly Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, were blamed for the government’s pandemic response, not Duterte who was immune from criticism.

But things changed this year after he strongly defended the P11-billion deal for medical supplies with the poorly capitalized Pharmally, a company controlled by a group of young Davao City-based Chinese businessmen.

The company with no track record of transacting business with the government has strong ties with Michael Yang, a Chinese businessman who had served as the president’s economic adviser.

Duterte’s defense of his Chinese friends had cost a political price on his popularity. Politicians running for national office do not want to be identified with him, even as a handful of his Cabinet members are risking running for senator under his party, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban). Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade even backed out of the race as more popular personalities have joined other presidential candidates.

There were rumors many of Duterte’s Cabinet have jumped ship to other viable presidential candidates, an acknowledgement that the PDP-Laban’s candidates, Senators Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa and Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, have slim chances of winning next year.

Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio has the best chance of succeeding her father but she has opted not to seek the presidency, deciding to seek reelection as Davao City mayor for the third and last time.
Her supporters are still hoping she will change her mind before the Nov. 15 deadline for substitution of candidates of political parties. It is also unwise for the Davao City mayor to seek the presidency late in the game. Her supporters have started looking for viable candidates and it’s not easy to build momentum when your rivals have left the starting block.

PDP-Laban opted to endorse dela Rosa while Lakas-NUCD is convincing Sen. Ramon “Bong: Revilla to run for president. Both dela Rosa and Revilla have nothing to lose. They will remain senators until 2025 even if they lose in the May 2022 elections.

Without Sara, Duterte will be forced to negotiate deals with some candidates to protect him from lawsuits.

Former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr appears to be his best bet. After all, Marcos needs the administration’s machinery to ensure victory next year.

There were also rumors the president would secretly support Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso as half of Duterte’s Cabinet men have joined the former actor’s campaign team. His campaign strategist, Lito Banayo, is a former de facto ambassador to Taiwan under the Duiterte administration. Three prominent Cabinet members are also in Domagoso’s team but have not openly expressed their support.

Bongbong and Isko could drop Duterte’s support if their own chances of winning are affected by the negative perception of the president. Some political analysts are saying Duterte’s support will be a “kiss of death” because of the people’s frustration at the pandemic response and corruption in the Pharmally deal.
But Duterte cannot afford to disappear from the political limelight. He has enjoyed power for so long — almost three decades — that he would long to be in power forever.

He was Davao City mayor for more than 20 years. The only time he was not mayor was in 1998 to 2001 when he was one of Davao City’s congressmen, and in 2010 to 2013 when he was vice mayor to his daughter. In 2016, his power expanded when he was elected president.

It would be unimaginable for Duterte to give the reins of power to someone who could hand him over to the ICC or would prosecute him for the many crimes he had committed as president.

Even Bongbong and Isko would be forced to give in to popular clamor to hold Duterte accountable for the killings and the rape of the country’s coffers at the height of the pandemic.

Duterte is not powerless with only a few months left in his term of office.

He may not be able to convince people to vote for a candidate. Pre-election surveys showed him sliding further down behind Senate President Vicente Sotto III.

But he is still in control of the military and police, the courts, and the legislature. He still wields enormous clout. But with no options left for his post-presidency scenarios, he could do what dictator Ferdinand Marcos did in 1972.

Marcos was no longer eligible to run for reelection in the 1973 polls because the 1935 Constitution allowed only one reelection for the president. He used the violent street protests and the twin insurgencies to impose martial law, scrap the elections, abolish all democratic institutions and rule by decree.

The pandemic could be a good excuse for Duterte to cancel the 2022 elections or to cause its failure because of violence and the health crisis. Or he can create a crisis to put off the elections.

Former senator Juan Ponce Enrile had warned of such a scenario in a Facebook post. It could happen if Duterte would be left with no options to remain in power. Power is addictive but this time the addict lives.