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The limits of Duterte's power

Ana P. Santos Manila
August 20, 2018

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said that he is "exasperated" and thinking about quitting the presidency. Who could take Duterte's place if he decides to step down? Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.

Rodrigo Duterte
Image: Getty Images/AFP

During a speech in Manila last Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lamented that he has failed to stop illegal drugs and fight state corruption. The 73-year-old president went as far to say he was ready to "step down and retire" if "the military and the police find the right successor." Duterte added that they were the only organizations that "can control the situation is everything breaks loose."

Under the single six-year term stipulated in the Constitution of the Philippines, Duterte's term ends in June 2022. However, the firebrand leader known for his outlandish remarks has made similar threats to resign in the past.

"He was not serious. His statement was a result of frustration over the slow pace of the reforms he wants for the country. We in the defense consider the statement a joke," Delfin Lorenzana, Secretary of National Defense, told DW.

"The president knows the law and the constitution. He also knows that the military and the police will obey and defend the constitution," Lorenzana said, adding that nowhere in the constitution is there a clause allowing for a junta to replace a sitting president.

Who would take over?

Leni Robredo, Vizepräsidentin von den Philippinen
Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo in 2017Image: imago/AFLO

If and when he steps down, Duterte has said former senator and son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., would be his choice of replacement. However, in the event of a resignation, the rightful successor to the presidency as stipulated by the Philippine constitution is current Vice President Leni Robredo.

Read more:  Can Philippine Vice President Robredo challenge Duterte?

Marcos Jr. narrowly lost his bid for the vice presidency in the 2016 presidential race to Leni Robredo by 220,000 votes. Marcos Jr., popularly known as "Bongbong," filed an electoral protest demanding a recount, which is currently being heard by the Philippine Supreme Court. Robredo is seen as a political rival to Duterte, but the president disparages her as "not being up to the job."

Duterte said he would be ready to step down if Marcos wins his electoral case in the Supreme Court.

In the Philippines, the president and vice president are elected separately are not required to belong to the same political party. Robredo, who represents the opposition Liberal Party, has openly opposed Duterte's policies, most notably the president's brutal crackdown on illegal narcotics.

Read more: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte slammed over kiss

Duterte has repeatedly lashed out against Robredo. In December 2016, he stripped her of her cabinet post and has criticized her leadership as 'incompetent.'"

Robredo's spokesperson, Barry Gutierrez, told DW that since she was elected, there have been continuous political attacks on Robredo. "She is used to this. She is taking all this in stride," he said. 

"We are not going to be bothered by simple words even if they come from the president," added Gutierrez. "We have the law and constitution on our side. We are completely confident that the electoral protest will be decided in VP Robredo's favor," he said.

Political decay and fragmentation

Political analysts see Duterte's resignation threats as a sign that he is crumbling under the weight of the presidency and falling popularity ratings.

In the first quarter of 2018, Duterte's public satisfaction dropped to "very good" from the previous rating of "excellent."

This came amid record-high inflation rates and a religious debacle after Duterte said that "God is stupid," which stirred up anger in the predominantly Catholic nation.

Read more: Investigating Duterte's drug war in Philippines — facts and fiction

"It has begun to sink in for Duterte that his actual political power has limits," political analyst Richard Heydarian, told DW.

Heydarian said that the administration's major policy initiatives, such as the push for federalism as a form of government, appeasement towards China's interests in the South China Sea, and tax reform, are becoming a source of internal conflict within Duterte's cabinet.

Nevertheless, Heydarian points out a positive side to the apparent dysfunction.

"The fears of being on an inexorable march to dictatorship are now less viable given Duterte's diffused power," said the analyst.

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