Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio is the top running mate in the Philippines’ May elections. She is also the daughter of the President, Rodrigo Duterte, a strong and tough man known for his bloody war on drugs, his chauvinistic attitudes and his bombastic insults.
His running mate is another famous scion, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator and, thanks to a shrewd PR campaign, the frontrunner to be the next president.
Critics say it could spell the end of the Philippines’ fragile democracy, and they denounced the couple as “spoiled children” and a “Axis of Evil.“The fear is that the government of two children of strongmen will reinforce a system of clientelism, weaken democratic institutions and stress that only a candidate’s last name matters.
Duterte-Carpio’s supporters, however, argue that she is level-headed and has sought to chart her own path in politics, while benefiting from her father’s popularity. A portrait emerges of a woman who is more complex than her colorful and crude father – and far more grounded than his running mate.
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A survivor of rape and miscarriage, she nonetheless stood up for her father when he notoriously made a rape joke at the expense of a murdered Australian missionary.
“I don’t take offense to his joke, because I still believe he can play and deliver as president,” she told local press at the time, even as she revealed that She had been assaulted before. Her father repaid his support by viewing her as a theater queen and expressed doubts that his daughter had ever been raped, as she carried a gun.
Duterte, who also said a woman should never be president, was somewhat conflicted with his daughter’s political career. He cannot run again because in the Philippines the president is limited to a single six-year term – although he has toyed with the idea for a while that he could run for vice president.
“She’s a woman, but she kicks, punches, slaps – do you want a president like that?” Duterte asked in 2017. Despite his frequent bashing of women, he was, however, supportive of his daughter. Analysts say the move is aimed at cementing his political legacy and shielding him from future prosecution, including for his bloody war on drugs, marked by thousands of extrajudicial executions.
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“Duterte’s sexist remarks are aimed at his opponents,” said Jean Franco, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of the Philippines. “But women can run…as long as it’s his daughter.”
In the male-dominated – some would say misogynistic – political environment of the Philippines, Duterte-Carpio’s tough personality shields her somewhat from the sexism commonly hurled at female candidates, experts say.
Politics in the Philippines “has always been modeled after a male leader,” Franco said. “People like politicians or prominent figures who present themselves as some form of savior or someone you can tell your problems directly to.”
Duterte-Carpio is an army reservist and supports compulsory military service for young people. Like her father, she has cultivated an image of someone not to mess with. Most famously, during her first term as mayor of Davao, she made national headlines for repeatedly punching a court sheriff who had been sent to oversee the demolition of a slum she was trying to stop.
“At that time, I was so frustrated. I couldn’t cry. They would think… “She is very emotional,” Duterte-Carpio told Rappler a year later. “I got carried away by the hothead. … I’m not very proud of it.
The behavior drew some criticism, but it also endeared him to his followers and prompted the creation of a drink called “Davao punch”.
Last month she identified as LGBTQ, saying she sometimes leans towards a more masculine gender expression – cutting her hair short when she feels “like a man” and growing it out when she feels feels feminine.
But she also made it clear that she was not attracted to women, prompting LGBTQ activists to accuse her of using gender identity as “a costume”.
Duterte-Carpio was born to Elizabeth Zimmerman, Duterte’s first wife. The marriage fell apart due to extramarital affairs. Duterte-Carpio previously said she was not close to her father, called him by his title in public, and did not consult him about his running for vice president.
Maria Isabelle Climaco, mayor of Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines, remarked to The Washington Post how formal Duterte-Carpio is with his father. She recalled a meeting between the president and local officials where the girl dutifully waited with other attendees to be photographed with the president instead of queuing to be the first.
“Basically, she’s a mother, a daughter, a woman with a heart,” Climaco said. “They share the same genetic line… but she has her own [leadership] style.” While Climaco backs Duterte-Carpio for vice president, it has backed opposition candidate Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo for president. In the Philippines, voters can split their votes for president and vice president, rather than voting for a ticket.
Zamboanga mayor says Duterte-Carpio respects his security detail, willingly offers to take selfies with his supporters and created his own group chat to help coordinate aid during a military plane crash in June . Climaco added that she also thinks Duterte-Carpio will improve relations with the United States, breaking with her father, who has distanced himself from Washington. However, her position on foreign policy is unclear, as she and Marcos avoid interviews and avoid election debates.
During the election campaign, Duterte-Carpio banters with his audience and easily alternates between Tagalog, effectively the national language, and Visayan, a central and southern Philippine language and his mother tongue.
“Clearly Sara is not an enfant terrible… [an] promising, pretentious and spoiled heir,” said political analyst Antonio La Viña.
Her perceived connection to the people is what compels some factions of her support base – including Climaco – to campaign for her, but then vote for a president other than Marcos, who is criticized for his elitism and family background of corruption.
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Yet despite Duterte-Carpio’s seemingly distant relationship with his father, family politics and clientelism reign supreme in the Philippines. Critics fear that Duterte-Carpio’s rise to power could spare the current president potential prosecution for crimes at home and at the International Criminal Court.
“Sara also comes across as different from her father,” Franco said. “But she is no different.”
“At the end of the day, she’s her father’s daughter,” she added. “It’s hard to imagine that she will give up [him].”
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