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Sara Duterte is Her Father's 'Alpha,' How Far Can She Flex Her Power?

The quiet kingmaker is her father's political heiress.
by Arianne Merez
Oct 19, 2020
Photo/s: Presidential Photo

President Rodrigo Duterte, in a 2019 speech, described her daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, as the "alpha" in the family, not him. The 75-year-old leader, who is stepping down in less than two years, often adlibs about Inday Sara, who is a quiet, yet potent force in her father's sphere.

Duterte-Carpio radiates strength through her actions. She showed up with a buzz cut during her confirmation as an Army reservist. She once punched a sheriff on national TV for demolishing poor people's homes. She nicknamed her children Sharky, Stingray and Stonefish.

She takes on the First Lady role when the situation calls for it. When the President was suffering from back pains during an official trip to Japan last year (the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito), Inday Sara was with him, wearing an emerald green terno. She is always by her father's side.

Yung alpha sa pamilya namin, hindi [ako]. Sabihin ko sa inyo hindi ‘yan  totoo, hindi ako, si Inday. Kung sabihin ni Inday, ganito, ganito ‘yan. Sa pamilya namin, siya ‘yan,” the President said during an event in Taguig City last year.

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She is a political force

Inday Sara can deal serious blows to political careers. Like that of ousted Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, and, more recently, her father’s former running mate, Ex-Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano. Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, who has her favor, succeeded in imposing his term-sharing deal with Cayetano.

“It has been some sort of tradition in our country that family members, such as children, are part of the decision-making process of their parents, even in politics," said University of Santo Tomas Political Science Department Chair Dennis Coronacion.

“Whether they (children) want to or not, they get involved. In the case of Sara Duterte, you could say that she’s maximizing her influence," Coronacion told reportr.

Courtesy of Sen. Bong Go
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Duterte-Carpio is the President’s favorite daughter and his political heiress apparent. She served as his vice mayor during his long-time stint as Davao City mayor, and eventually taking over leadership of the Mindanao urban hub after her father won the presidency.

“When we talk about family, Sara Duterte is no different from other presidential sons or daughters, and even relatives that influenced or involved themselves in the political process,” Ramon Casiple, Executive Director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform told reportr.

“Although unofficial, commonly, it’s part of the process that a family member is involved in the political decisions,” he added.

She is unlike past Presidents' children

Children of Philippine presidents have played prominent roles—either officially or unofficially, with some even following their footsteps.

Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the daughter of late president Diosdado Macapagal, while her successor Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III was the son of late president Corazon Aquino.

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Children of former president Joseph Estrada—Jinggoy and JV—entered politics too, similar to the children of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr—Imee and Bongbong.

Courtesy of Sen. Bong Go

The similarities end at holding public office. No other child of the President has exercised influence over Congress the way she has.

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In just two years, Duterte-Carpio shifted power in the House of Representatives—unseating and installing congressmen. Traditionally, the House Speaker is an ally of the current administration to ensure that the legislative agenda of the sitting president is prioritized.

Her photo posts can shift alliances

At the height of the most recent power struggle, all it took was a single photo of Duterte-Carpio with Velasco for congressmen to oust Cayetano and install the Marinduque lawmaker as the new lord of the House.

Oriental Mindoro Rep. Salvador Leachon in a television interview admitted that the photo swayed congressmen to side with Velasco and exit Cayetano’s camp. “Of course, we believe so. That’s been the history and tradition in the Philippines in all transitions, even in the speakership race,” he said on ANC.

Presidential Photo
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For Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, it was like history repeating itself. "It happened in the past and history will tell us that Speaker Bebot Alvarez who had a strong bond and relationship with the President was replaced after apparently Mayor Sara and the children of the President started campaigning in favor of former President GMA," he told ANC. 

Duterte-Carpio was credited for orchestrating a House coup that saw Alvarez’s fall from grace, and former President Gloria Arroyo's ascent to the House leadership.

Will the kingmaker become queen?

After playing key roles in the ouster of two House speakers during her father’s presidency, Sara has “definitely” established herself as a kingmaker—but there could also be more in it for her.

She’s not just a kingmaker, she wants to be the queen too,” political analyst Casiple said.

Talks of a possible 2022 presidential run for the Davao City mayor have swirled since late 2018 with Palace sources claiming that the 75-year-old President is eyeing to pass the baton to his eldest daughter.

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She’s already a power to reckon with, not just in Mindanao but even in the national [level]. But to win as president, you need a lot of things so it’s too early to say that whatever she’s doing right now, is enough to catapult her as a successful presidential candidate,” analyst Coronacion said.

Last year, although she was not a candidate herself, Duterte-Carpio went around the country to campaign for her senatorial ticket under the regional party Hugpong ng Pagbabago.

Presidential Photo
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While she acts as her father’s first lady in official and out-of-town functions, Duterte-Carpio has presented herself to be far from submissive — publicly stating her disagreement with some of the elder Duterte’s policies such as federalism.

Duterte-Carpio has remained mum on rumors of her possible presidential bid.

But her father’s men are far from quiet on the possibility with the President’s chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo even raising the prospect of a Duterte-Duterte tandem that would see the incumbent chief executive sitting as the vice president after the end of his presidency.

“Sara Duterte is a logical choice [for a presidential candidate] since she’s already very active. It won’t be a surprise,” Casiple said. “She’s definitely in good position to be a presidential candidate. She’s very influential, the daughter of the President and definitely, she is a political figure in her own right.”

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Duterte in the past has publicly discouraged his children from seeking the presidency. But in July this year, the first leader from Mindanao seems to have opened a window for a possible change of mind.

“Sinabi ko kay Inday, ’wag kang mag-presidente unless you see something na kaya mo para gawain mo sa bayan,” the President said in a speech. “If just a matter of ambition, lay off."

Just before she retired from politics last year, Arroyo called the Davao City mayor a “rising star” in politics but advised her supporters to "take it one election at a time."

And before stepping down as House Speaker, Arroyo, who like Duterte-Carpio was also a daughter of a president, left the public with this statement: "Let me just put it this way: historically, children of presidents do rise.”

-- Arianne Merez,

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