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Philippine President Duterte retirement fuels speculation around successor

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the more controversial leaders on the world stage seems to be preparing to bow out of politics. The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, announced his intention today to retire from politics, walking back his earlier claim that he would run for vice president in 2022. The move is fueling speculation that Duterte could be clearing the way for his daughter to succeed him as president. Here to tell us more is NPR international correspondent Julie McCarthy. Julie, thank you so much for being here.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Duterte has seven months left in office. Why is he making this announcement now?

MCCARTHY: Well, first of all, Duterte cannot run for president again. You get one term. But this is crunchtime for candidates who want to certify they're in the race for the 2022 election, and Duterte they had to decide if he was going to run for vice president. But the numbers, Michel, aren't with him. In fact, 6 out of 10 voters in one survey thought Duterte's bid for the vice presidency was an unconstitutional extension of the power, that his - as vice president, he could slip through the back door into the presidency again and subvert term limits. And in bowing out, Duterte acknowledged that the public thought that violated the spirit of the law, and he sounded like it left him no choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODRIGO DUTERTE: And so in obedience to the will of the people, I announce my retirement from politics.

MCCARTHY: You know, one political commentator said he may also have concluded that after 5 1/2 years, he's become a liability to his party but wants to preserve his influence. And the best way would be not to run but to become the kingmaker instead, and he also has a lot to protect as the kingmaker.

MARTIN: Like what? What's he interested in protecting?

MCCARTHY: Well, himself, for one, and his associates, for other - for another, of allegations of corruption or lapping at the door of his administration, including charges that people he knew well may have swindled taxpayers with huge markups for health equipment during the pandemic. People have also wondered, Michel, why he's so tightly embraced China, and that could come under scrutiny.

MARTIN: And what about Duterte's longtime drug war, which, I hope many people will remember, was quite brutal and quite controversial? Is there some fallout from that?

MCCARTHY: I think that's top of mind. By official count, at least 6,000 Filipinos have been killed in anti-drug operations. Rights groups say that number is four or five times that once you include the extrajudicial killings, extrajudicial killings that were alleged as part of this drug war are included. Now, the International Criminal Court has opened a full investigation of Duterte's drug war for possible crimes against humanity, and Duterte wants someone in the presidential palace who can protect him from protection after he leaves office.

MARTIN: And how would that work? Who would do that?

MCCARTHY: Well, a true loyalist could protect him by refusing to let international prosecutors into the country to do their job. And, you know, analysts say Duterte's biggest preoccupation here is self-preservation. It's not holding onto power. It's survival of the Duterte family. And observers have said if that's the objective, there's no better choice than his own politician daughter Sara Duterte. She filed her papers for reelection as mayor of Davao City, but she has until October 8 to declare her intentions for the presidential race. So all eyes are on that.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, as briefly as you can, could Duterte's daughter actually win?

MCCARTHY: Well, she was leading this summer. She's fallen behind Bongbong Marcos, the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, since then, so she's vulnerable. And analysts say the backroom politicking is getting intense and that the two families, Marcos and Duterte, may be trying to team up somehow. And President Duterte is said to be very actively involved in that behind-the-scenes drama to see who rules the country next.

MARTIN: That is NPR international correspondent Julie McCarthy. Julie, thank you so much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK BARROTT'S "SCHOPENHAUER'S GARDEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.