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MANILA – Rodrigo Duterte has dominated politics in the Philippines since becoming president five years ago, with a drug crusade blamed for thousands of extrajudicial killings and a campaign of pressure against opposition leaders and the media .

Now, months away from his six-year tenure, his opponents fear he is laying the groundwork to stay in power for years to come.

Mr Duterte this week announced his intention to run for vice-presidency in the May elections. Critics say this is a blatant attempt by Mr Duterte, 76, to save himself from his “political sins” as he faces possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court. An ICC report last year said there was enough evidence to show crimes against humanity were committed in Mr Duterte’s bloody drug war, which left thousands dead .

But Mr Duterte says he still has unfinished business, mainly the war on drugs and his fight against the country’s communist insurgency.

“I may not have the power to give direction or advice, but I can still express my opinions in public,” he said of his potential new role as vice president.

He has long flirted with the idea of ​​staying in government, although he has repeatedly said over the past year that he is tired of the presidency, which he says has taken a toll on his life. health.

Then on Wednesday evening at a nationally televised cabinet meeting, Mr Duterte said unequivocally: “Okay, I will run for vice-president. So I will continue the crusade.

Political and defense analyst Chester Cabalza, founder of the Manila-based research institute International Development and Security Cooperation, said Mr Duterte’s decision was clearly aimed at saving him from prosecution.

“However, international laws are being tested for teeth against world leaders who have committed crimes against humanity,” Cabalza said in an interview. “And that will not spare him from his political sins.”

Moreover, he said, Mr. Duterte likes to be presented as the responsible man, and playing second violin is clearly not his style.

“We will see clashes and divisions if that happens,” Cabalza said, adding that the president’s declining health could also work against him.

In the Philippines, the president and vice-president are elected separately, each serving a single six-year term. The Constitution prohibits a president from being re-elected, but it allows him to run for a lower office afterwards.

Two corrupt former presidents, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, were elected to other public office after their tenure as head of the country ended.

There is no legal reason why Mr Duterte cannot be prosecuted as president, but he has made it clear that he will defy any summons to the International Court. A vice president would have less power to do so, but Mr Duterte hopes to run in tandem with Senator Christopher Lawrence Go as the presidential candidate.

If both men win, political experts say, Mr Go can either step down to allow Mr Duterte to step in as leader, or let Mr Duterte rule the country by proxy, making sure he escapes the clutches. lawsuits.

Harry Roque, the president’s spokesperson, confirmed on Thursday that all Mr. Duterte was waiting for now was for Mr. Go to “make up his mind” on his candidacy.

Mr. Go did not return a phone call asking for comment and did not publicly address the issue of the presidential bid. In a statement to local reporters, he said of Mr Duterte: “I promised him that I will serve him as long as he lives. And that promise includes taking care of his children when he’s gone.

Mr Duterte’s decision puts him on a collision course with his daughter, Sara Duterte, mayor of the city of Davao. She has bolstered her popularity as a potential successor to her father, but is not a member of his political party.

She seemed not to be amused by the latest development. She said her father had informed her in advance of his decision and that “it was not a pleasant event”.

Mr. Roque, for his part, indicated that he did not wish to comment on an internal “family affair”.

Other prominent figures who have indicated they plan to run for president include Senator Manny Pacquiao, the boxing star who turned his sports popularity into a political career; Francisco Domagoso, the current mayor of Manila, who was once a morning idol known as Isko Moreno; and Vice-President Leni Robredo, Leader of the Opposition, lawyer and former Congressman.

Former congressman Neri Colmenares, a human rights lawyer, said Mr Duterte’s announcement appeared to be an attempt to perpetuate his own political dynasty. He suggested that the president was exploiting the Constitution.

Mr Duterte remains popular in the impoverished Philippines, although his brilliance has been tarnished somewhat by allegations of corruption and extrajudicial killings, according to various surveys. Corruption charges also harassed Mr Duterte’s Covid-19 response; he refused to fire his health secretary because of discrepancies in the accounting of state funds.

“He is now a lame duck and will surely lose in the 2022 election,” Colmenares predicted.

Mr. Colmenares, who is part of a group of lawyers who have indicted Mr. Duterte at the ICC, added: “His desire for immunity only shows that he is afraid of the International Criminal Court after all its boasting about it. ‘to be a fearless president. “

The only way Duterte can escape prosecution is to remain president, Colmenares added, and the only way he can do is go through the back door.

“He hopes to escape prosecution after he is out of power,” he said. “This is not only legally insane, but also exposes his real fear of going to jail.”