MANILA — She’s the mayor of a major Philippine city, rides a motorcycle, has served in the army and probably carries a gun — and she once punched a court sheriff several times in the face in her city when he went ahead with a shantytown demolition she was trying to halt.
Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio is the leading candidate for vice president in the Philippines’ May elections. She is also the daughter of the president, Rodrigo Duterte, a tough-talking strongman known for his bloody drug war, chauvinistic attitudes and bombastic insults.
Her running mate is another famous offspring, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator and, thanks to a slick PR campaign, the front-runner to be the next president.
Critics say it could be a death knell for the Philippines’ fragile democracy, and they have denounced the pair as “spoiled brats” and an “Axis of Evil.” The fear is that rule by two children of strongmen would reinforce a system of patronage, weaken democratic institutions and emphasize that only a candidate’s last name matters.
Duterte-Carpio’s supporters maintain, however, that she is levelheaded and has sought to chart her own path in politics, even while benefiting from her father’s popularity. A portrait is emerging of woman who is more complex than her colorful, crude father — and a great deal more grounded than her running mate.
A survivor of rape and a miscarriage, she nonetheless defended her father when he notoriously made a joke about rape at the expense of a murdered Australian missionary.
“I take no offense at his joke, because I still believe he can perform and deliver as president,” she told the local press at the time, even as she revealed she had once been assaulted. Her father repaid her support by ribbing her as a drama queen and expressed doubt that his daughter had ever been raped, since she carries a gun.
Duterte, who also said a woman should never be president, has been somewhat conflicted about his daughter’s political career. He can’t run again, because in the Philippines, the president is limited to a single six-year term — although he toyed with the idea for a while that he might 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 denigration of women, however, he has endorsed his daughter. Analysts say the move is aimed at cementing his political legacy and protecting himself from future prosecution — not least for his bloody drug war, marked by thousands of extrajudicial killings.
“Duterte’s sexist remarks are meant for his women opponents,” said Jean Franco, an associate professor in the University of the Philippines political science department. “But women can run … as long as it is his daughter.”
In the male-dominated — some would say misogynist — political environment of the Philippines, Duterte-Carpio’s tough persona shields her somewhat from the sexism typically 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 personalities who portray themselves as some form of savior or somebody to whom you can tell your problems directly.”
Duterte-Carpio is an army reservist and supports mandatory military service for young people. Like her father, she has cultivated an image of someone not to be messed with. Most famously, during her first term as Davao mayor, she made national headlines for repeatedly punching a court sheriff who was sent to oversee a slum demolition that she was trying to stop.
“At that time, I was so frustrated. I couldn’t cry. They would think … ‘She’s very emotional,’ ” Duterte-Carpio told Rappler a year later. “I got carried away by hot-headedness. … I’m not very proud of it.”
The behavior drew some criticism, but it also endeared her to her supporters and prompted the creation of a drink called the “Davao punch.”
Last month, she identified herself as LGBTQ, saying she sometimes leans toward a more masculine gender expression — cutting her hair short when she feels “like a man” and growing it out when she feels feminine.
But she also clarified 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 following extramarital affairs. Duterte-Carpio has previously said she is not close with her father, calls him by his title in public and did not consult him about her vice-presidential run.
Maria Isabelle Climaco, mayor of Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines, remarked to The Washington Post on how formal Duterte-Carpio is with her father. She recalled a meeting between the president and local officials in which the daughter dutifully waited with other attendees to be photographed with the president instead of cutting in line to be first.
“Basically, she is a mother, a daughter, a woman with a heart,” Climaco said. “They share the same genetic lineage … but she has her own [leadership] style.” While Climaco is endorsing Duterte-Carpio for vice president, she 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.
According to the Zamboanga mayor, Duterte-Carpio is respectful to her security detail, readily offers to take selfies with supporters and created her own group chat to help coordinate aid during a military plane crash in June. Climaco added that she also believes Duterte-Carpio will improve relations with the United States, breaking with her father, who has distanced himself from Washington. However, her foreign policy stance is unclear, as she and Marcos shy away from interviews and shun election debates.
On the campaign trail, Duterte-Carpio banters with her audience and switches easily back and forth between Tagalog, effectively the national language, and Visayan, a language of the central and southern Philippines and her mother tongue.
“Clearly Sara is not an enfant terrible … [an] up-and-coming, snooty, spoiled heir,” political analyst Antonio La Viña said.
Her perceived connection with 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 elitism and his family history of corruption.
Yet despite Duterte-Carpio’s apparently distant relationship with her father, family and patronage politics rule supreme in the Philippines. Critics fear Duterte-Carpio’s rise to power could spare the current president from possible prosecution of crimes at home and in the International Criminal Court.
“Sara is also portraying herself as different from her father,” Franco said. “But she’s not different.”
“At the end of the day, she is her father’s daughter,” she added. “It’s difficult to imagine she will abandon [him].”