Team Unity on the verge of break up?By Jeraldine Pascual
The apparent political rifts within the UniTeam signal more political turmoil as political actors
move toward midterm elections in 2025.
The hold of Marcos on his executive power is secured by Martin Romualdez’ command over the House supermajority. Not much is certain yet with the Dutertes.
How it all began
As the country prepared for the 2022 presidential elections, Senator Imee Marcos described in August 2021 the possible team up of her brother Ferdinand Marcos Jr. with Sara Duterte as a “marriage made in heaven.”
These words expressed the conventional wisdom of bringing together two dynasties from the north and the south. Rodrigo Duterte’s popularity still ran high, and both Marcos and Duterte as political names enjoyed recall.
There was an even greater driving force, as a network of influencers and content creators pushed false narratives, historical revision, and fables about the Marcos family’s desire to share their wealth in gold.
It was a two-fold victory: Marcos restored his family’s name to power and Duterte continued her family’s hold in the political arena. But no marriage can stand up to political self-interest. Policy divisions showed up fissures which, despite claims that all was well, broke up the team in 2023.
Signs of trouble
Policy divisions set Marcos apart from Rodrigo Duterte from the beginning. His claim to pursue the campaign against illegal drugs with less punitive measures was a major indication of trouble ahead. Marcos Jr.’s pivot back to the US proved even more dramatic, shifting away from Duterte’s hostility toward the American ally and open loyalty to Beijing.
In February 2023, media reported the opening of five more Philippine military bases to US access under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The April 2023 Balikatan exercises also hosted the largest drills ever with 17,600 troops participating in maritime defense activities. News reports picked up the lukewarm response of locals in the Balikatan areas, whose livelihoods were briefly disrupted by the drills.
Marcos however took care to keep the country’s ties with China warm. He declared in 2022 a foreign policy of being “a friend to all and enemy to none.” He has pursued protests against Chinese militia in the West Philippine Sea but has held back from any hostile confrontation. Marcos himself admitted in December 2023 the futility of traditional diplomatic channels and that a “paradigm shift” was now needed to deal with China’s escalated aggression. Last year, Philippine Coast Guard vessels along with civil society groups sailed for a mission to provide supplies to military troops and fisherfolk across the Spratlys. The mission was shadowed by Chinese ships, prompting the captain of the mother ship to abort. But one of the smaller boats in the convoy successfully reached Lawak Island to drop off supplies.
While no drastic measures have been taken concerning China, Marcos has, at the very least, spoken on many occasions about the need to defend and uphold Philippine sovereignty. This is another departure from his predecessor who took a defeatist stance, dismissing the 2016 ruling of the International Arbitral Tribunal as “just a piece of paper.”
Meanwhile, Vice President Duterte, ever her father’s daughter, kept her silence on China’s actions. She said only that she would in principle uphold her father’s position on the matter, seek more partnerships with the Chinese government in areas such as education and youth development — objectives that the Office of the President denied sharing. Sara Duterte also made a special effort to greet the People’s Republic of China in Mandarin on its founding anniversary in 2022 and 2023.
Former President Duterte himself, already a private citizen, maintained his close ties with China. Unannounced, he made a controversial visit to Beijing in July 2023, surely a disturbing gesture that invited criticism that he was undermining Marcos and his current China policy. Marcos opted to be graciously non-committal. Media reported Marcos’ statement that he was aware of the visit, and that Duterte did not need to ask permission to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Discord within the alliance
The efforts to keep up the alliance at their level did not hold up against significant divisions in Congress, particularly the House. Media covered these developments toward disunity.
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former president, sought and won a seat in Congress retaining her political influence. She was acknowledged as guiding Marcos and Duterte to agree to run as a team. Sara Duterte had always expressed her closeness to Arroyo as her ally and adviser.
Speculations of a political rift began in May 2023 when as current Pampanga 2nd District Representative, Arroyo was stripped of her post as senior deputy speaker, supposedly to “unburden” her of the “heavy load” attached to the position. Divested of the additional “senior” in the title, Arroyo remained then as one of nine deputy speakers.
Arroyo dispelled rumors that she was plotting a coup to steal the position of House Speaker Martin Romualdez, the president’s cousin. The rumors could not be helped. Arroyo has established her capacity for power play, unseating in 2018 House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez — a move that Sara Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, reportedly orchestrated.
Following Arroyo’s demotion, Duterte resigned from her political party Lakas-CMD, now headed by Romualdez as its president. Arroyo remains the chair emeritus of the party. But in November 2023, she lost her deputy speaker post, after failing to sign a resolution upholding the House’s integrity and leadership. Arroyo’s excuse? She was out of the country at the time, while reiterating her support for Romualdez.
Beyond the power struggle in Congress, money matters played more visibly to widen the breach. Such wounds may not heal permanently.
Duterte found herself at the center of a huge controversy when the House scrutinized the confidential funds (CF) of the Office of the Vice President (OVP). As budget proceedings for the 2024 national budget began, opposition lawmakers flagged the PHP125 million CF that the OVP spent in the last months of 2022.
The OVP was not supposed to have a CF for 2022, as Duterte’s predecessor Leni Robredo did not request for it. The Commission on Audit said the PHP125 million was spent in only 11 days, but Duterte did not explain well enough how the money was used. As of December 2023, three petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the legality of the PHP125-million CF.
The OVP’s CF request for 2024 amounted to an even bigger PHP500 million, and another PHP150 million for the Department of Education (DepEd) which Duterte also heads. The issue sparked a wave of protests on social media and other public forums.
While the House Committee on Appropriations initially extended “parliamentary courtesy” to Duterte and refrained from questioning the amount, the House plenary ultimately decided to strip the offices of the VP and DepEd Secretary of their respective CFs, redirecting the lump-sum funds to agencies engaged in security particularly in the West Philippine Sea. The House seemingly caved in to public pressure to remove the funds from Duterte’s offices.
In his program on SMNI, Rodrigo Duterte accused Romualdez of leading attacks against his daughter and made threats against Representative France Castro, who called attention to the dubious request for confidential funds.
The former president also called the House the “most rotten institution,” which the chamber did not take lightly. Media noted the “rare” and “unprecedented” statement from the House calling Duterte out for his attacks.
Sara Duterte saw the wisdom of a retreat, ultimately withdrawing her request for CFs and saying the issue was “divisive.” Both her offices ended up without CFs. Reports noted that unlike the previous year’s ceremony, she did not attend the signing of the national budget on December 20.
Casualties of the CF controversy
Rodrigo Duterte’s tirades also cost him his allies in the House, as members of his political party PDP-Laban were reported to have jumped ship to Lakas-CMD, which now has 82 members out of the 311-strong House.
SMNI, Duterte’s favorite broadcast platform, was also suspended for 30 days by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC). The NTC acted on a House resolution that asserted SMNI violated its franchise by, among other reasons, spreading disinformation concerning Romualdez’ travel funds. CMFR described the action on SMNI as politically motivated, not unlike the moves to reject the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise.
The whole issue of confidential funds may have ended, but there was more trouble toward the end of the year for Sara Duterte.
Initially averse to opening the country to investigations by the International Criminal Court (ICC), Marcos had announced in August 2023 that the Philippines had no intention to rejoin the ICC.
He reversed his position when he told the media on November 25 that returning to the ICC was “under study.” The statement came after lawmakers filed resolutions urging the government to cooperate with the ICC in probing extrajudicial killings during former President Duterte’s term.
Vice President Duterte said she respected Marcos’ foreign policy decisions, but asserted the position of her office against cooperation, appealing with the Justice department to hear the OVP’s position.
Also in November, Marcos issued proclamations granting amnesty to former communist rebels and insurgents. Marcos also revived exploratory peace negotiations with the Communist Party of the Philippines, which the Vice President called an “agreement with the devil.”
What lies ahead
The apparent political rifts within the UniTeam signal more political turmoil as political actors move toward midterm elections in 2025. The hold of Marcos on his executive power is secured by Martin Romualdez’ command over the House supermajority.
Not much is certain yet with the Dutertes. Sara Duterte herself has profusely thanked Senator Imee Marcos, the president’s sister, for her unwavering support. Meanwhile, Duterte the former president may yet consider a re-entry into politics with a run for the Senate.
Knowing Philippine politics, who knows what to make of this simmering ferment and its outcome?