Sara Duterte’s breakaway

Sara Duterte’s breakaway

Vice President Sara Duterte telegraphed her imminent pullout from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s Cabinet on June 12 in as succinct a declaration as could be desired in response to reporters’ questions about the state of the UniTeam.

In saying that their alliance was formed only for the 2022 elections and that they are no longer candidates, Sara Duterte was announcing that her breakaway from the Cabinet was not a matter of if but when. When it did come to pass a week later, it drew unsurprised reactions from the usual talking heads. And the loud calls directed at Mr. Marcos to appoint a seasoned, reform-minded person to handle the education portfolio that she would irrevocably relinquish on July 19 suggested not only the dissatisfaction and unhappiness of certain stakeholders at her stint but also the hope that it would not last.

Being education secretary was not the concurrent post that Sara Duterte wanted, at any rate. Early on she had made known that in the event of the UniTeam’s victory, she wanted to head the Department of National Defense. (Imagine the possibilities.) That her expressed preference was not favored is now being cited as the first “crack” in the tandem’s alliance. Maybe so. But it would seem that the biggest crack was her running in 2022 as No. 2—and not as No. 1, as her father, then President Rodrigo Duterte, was said to have demanded. 

Recall the mad flurry in the period for the filing of candidacies in 2021: The situation was so fluid, the maneuvering so intense, that “placeholders” had to be employed to keep prospective slots warm. Sara Duterte was running as mayor of the family bailiwick Davao City but eventually ditched that race. (Her brother took up her candidacy.) Then, in the course of one day, she quit her Hugpong ng Pagbabago and was sworn into the ruling Lakas-CMD by the party president, then Majority Leader Martin Romualdez of the House of Representatives. Shortly, she sent someone to file her candidacy as Mr. Marcos’  running mate. In the ensuing tumult, Rodrigo Duterte’s longtime minder, Sen. Bong Go, and even Rodrigo Duterte himself, were reported at varying points as prepping to run as her opponent for the No. 2 post.

Combative stance 

Per her office’s recitation of her accomplishments, Sara Duterte performed well as chief of the Department of Education. Certain groups are unimpressed. And her Ill-advised combative stance toward activist teachers wrought much damage to her administration; the mistrust and resultant strain in what could have become a working relationship could not be undone. 

Teachers remain miserably paid, students are cellar dwellers in world rankings. Her harping on the alleged communist affiliations of teachers outspoken about their deplorable working conditions and the government’s neglect of public schools and indeed the educational system in general could not cloud the realities on the ground. That the Supreme Court recently ruled that Red-tagging threatens the life, liberty and security of those thus labeled exposed her hostility to activist teachers as unsound and dangerous. As a result, her claim that her resignation as education secretary was caused not by weakness but compassion for teachers and the youth, along with her promise that she would “continue to be a mother” to them, came across as puzzling and ultimately contradictory.

It does not help Sara Duterte that the issue of her confidential funds—or money spent by civilian agencies on surveillance and intelligence gathering—remains fresh in the collective memory. Quite unforgettable is the statement prepared by her comms team in 2023 when she was requesting a total of P625 million for the Office of the Vice President and the DepEd for 2024, and reaping the whirlwind for it: that those questioning her use of confidential funds are driven by “insidious motivations,” that those opposed to confidential funds are “opposed to peace,” and that those opposed to peace are “enemies of the people.” 

As it happened, the public agitation over the matter having reached such levels as could conceivably impact on the midterm elections, the House under now-Speaker Romualdez, despite the efforts of her champions in the chamber, realigned the confidential funds to agencies most in need of them. But it is on record that Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte received  and spent confidential funds worth P125 million in 11 days in 2022.

Burdened by baggage

Now the reckoning goes that with the sought funds withheld—leading Sara Duterte’s furious father to rip into the House and even Mr. Marcos, accusing one as corrupt and the other as, variously, addicted to drugs and a crybaby, and warning of a downfall akin to the toppling of the Marcos Sr. dictatorship—what was the point of her staying in the Cabinet? Indeed. Burdened by the baggage of Rodrigo Duterte’s benign stance vis a vis China’s incursions into the West Philippine Sea, she is unable to manage even an expression of concern for Filipino fishers  threatened with arrest for venturing into their own country’s exclusive economic zone. She will protest the use of “excessive force” in the serving of an arrest warrant on Apollo Quiboloy, Rodrigo Duterte’s spiritual adviser who is accused of sexual and other crimes, but she will keep mum on the thousands of extrajudicial killings under the aegis of the “war on drugs.” Nor will she comment on Mr. Marcos’ directive to incorporate the “Bagong Pilipinas” hymn and pledge into the flag ceremony of public schools, an act of historical erasure directed at young Filipinos bereft of education on martial law.

The ironies abound, so much so that her status as Cabinet member and the President’s alter ego has truly become untenable (a description used by former Senate president Franklin Drilon as early as February in an interview with CoverStory, in which he also said that the UniTeam’s “chances of permanently breaking up are very high.”)

Sara Duterte’s primary allies, Sen. Imee Marcos and Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, had differing reactions to her resignation as education secretary and vice chair of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict. Imee Marcos (the President’s elder sister) said she’s with the VP “all the way.” Arroyo, guarded, issued a nonstatement, perhaps still waiting for the dust to clear.

The legend goes that these three women make things happen, as when then Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez was cut down even as Rodrigo Duterte cooled his heels in the House lounge, waiting to deliver his State of the Union Address. (Arroyo was installed in Alvarez’s place shortly afterwards.) Their ties apparently run deep. Imee Marcos has been quoted as saying that she would stick with the Dutertes even if she’s the only one left. When Arroyo was demoted from senior deputy speaker to being one among many deputy speakers—for alleged machinations, which she promptly denied, against the House’s top guy (the Marcoses’ first cousin)—Sara Duterte quickly quit the ruling party.


The anti-Marcos and pro-Duterte camps are now touting Sara Duterte as the next leader of the opposition. The absurdity has raised the hackles of what Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman called, correctly, “the ideological and conscientious opposition.” Its movers and shakers have their work cut out for them in the run-up to the 2025 elections: to demonstrate the stark differences between those who use transactional political alliances to attain power and those who organize with like-minded forces to present a workable framework of public service founded on, according to Liberal Party spokesperson Leila de Lima, “accountability, transparency and concern for the people.”

There’s tremendous work to be done. But meanwhile, there’s the frightening picture concerning the “complex, immense … deeply rooted” education crisis cited by the Second Congressional Commission on Education early this year, what the Inquirer columnist Edilberto de Jesus described as “a massive education failure for which no one appears accountable.”

Read more: Marcos-Duterte bickering is ‘all politics’ from which nothing can be gained, says Drilon

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