Political pundits are in disbelief of the sky-high approval and trust ratings of the President in the most recent survey of Pulse Asia, Inc. President Rodrigo Duterte’s 91% approval rating is his highest so far according to the research firm, and no post-EDSA President has reached the “honeymoon period” with the public this long which continues to defy norms and expectations of a leader already halfway through his term. The skepticism in the recent Pulse Asia Ulat ng Bayan survey, the first major nationwide survey during the pandemic, is not because it is record-breaking since the President has always been popular even during the height of the infamous drug-war but because his approval rating is soaring at a time when the administration’s competence is tested and found severely wanting in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest crisis that hit his administration.
Critics of the Duterte administration are quick to question the methodology and even the trustworthiness of the survey, asking if the firm used a magic carpet to be able to do a face-to-face survey despite transport limitation. Netizens cast doubt if an actual survey is truly being conducted or some concluding that the survey is limited for a select few leading to some woke netizens to suggest that Pulse Asia should change its name to False Asia. A few of those who would not question the accuracy of the poll straightforwardly ask if Pinoys are blind, uninformed, or simply stupid.
Critics and outsiders might look at President Duterte as an enigma but most ordinary Filipinos see him in a different lens. To most Filipinos, Duterte is the leader they have long been waiting for. The writer of this article will not be an apologist for this regime but it will try to explain the political phenomenon that is Duterte.
The Teflon President
Duterte’s political prowess is the envy of many politicians as he is able to bypass crises or scandals that would kill the career of ordinary politicos. American politician like Donald Trump pales in comparison to the “teflonish” Rodrigo Duterte for the former is only popular with his base, at most one-third of the American populace, while the latter is overwhelmingly feared and loved. Filipinos hate the actions of Duterte but love him to the point of adoration. A survey overwhelmingly claims Filipinos are against extra-judicial killing yet shrugged at every instance that the president publicly orders it, we profess to be a country that respects women yet we laugh at his insulting language about women, we desire a free and unbiased press yet we supported his strong-arm tactics against the media, we all accede on the threat of China’s bullying strategy in the West Philippine Sea yet we do not oppose the ass-kissing policy of Duterte towards our superpower neighbor. Duterte is the only elected president on the planet being investigated for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague yet we turn a blind eye to his shortcomings and still call him Tatay. This is the paradox of the country’s relationship with the President.
Duterte could be the ultimate “Teflon President” because of his seemingly magical ability to avoid criticism and blame. Duterte’s political charm and personal style form a protective covering that resisted public displeasure and somehow explains his high popularity ratings. Erap, the Teflon candidate, overcome the barrage of scandals and criticism and won in the 1998 presidential election but his protective coating failed to protect him against accusations of corruption which led to his ouster in the middle of his Presidency. Although the Duterte administration is beset with issues of corruption, most recently the Philhealth mess, the President himself is not accused of pocketing people’s money or using his office to gain ill-gotten wealth which somehow further strengthen his protective coating from blame and culpability.
There are various reasons why citizens and local leaders join the bandwagon to support a President — one is that the President is the biggest and most powerful patron in politics. Gaining access to public services and currying favor from the state apparatus given the pervasive role of the Philippine government and the still large inequality in wealth and opportunities facing the population ensures survival and safety.
We have seen this situation in this pandemic. Vico Sotto, the young feisty mayor of Pasig, was heavily reprimanded for going his own at relieving the transportation burden of his constituents yet Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, a close ally of the President, was given a kids glove treatment for doing the same. Relatives and friends of the Barangay Captains are prioritized in the distribution of the cash grant under the social amelioration program of the government more than those who are in desperate need of assistance. Therefore, there is this general perception that you have to be allied to the powers-that-be and not be viewed as too critical to gain access for help and support during these times of crisis. People tend to imitate other people’s choices not just to be accepted but to be safe.
Duterte’s enduring appeal is that of a strongman leader that can connect to Filipinos. Filipinos see him as authentically like them, unlike previous leaders whose posture is to be above them. Duterte brought a never before seen brand of local/parochial politics to the national stage but is familiar to everyday Filipinos. When Duterte ran in 2016, then a long-time mayor of Davao City, we saw in him what we see every day with our local leader- a no-nonsense mayor offering easily understood policy goals. Even the macho personality, brutal language, and tough attitude are typical of Filipino mayors and are not unique to Duterte. In fact, some of them we mythologized and immortalized in movies like Alfredo Lim of Manila, Edward Hagedorn of Puerto Princesa, Meliton “Latigo’ Geronimo of Baras, and Cesar Climaco of Zamboanga. The Philippine is attracted to strongman leaders even though we have a strong preference for democracy.
Duterte maybe is a dictator but to many Filipinos, he is a benevolent dictator, a necessary dictator. The dictator Marcos incarcerated his critics and killed many who oppose him but Duterte killed drug pushers and addicts that are a threat to the life and security of ordinary citizens, that is why his action is not only being tolerated but Filipinos looked at his misdeeds as a necessary trade-off. Marcos fought the oligarchs but ending up creating his own groups of crony and amassing ill-gotten wealth while President Rodrigo Duterte is cracking down on some of the Philippines’ biggest businesses, pushing a populist agenda that’s endearing him to his supporters. The heavy-handed lockdown, the strictest and longest in the world, enforced by the security apparatus of the state during this pandemic is not seen as a curtailment of rights by a despot but a desperate act of a concerned leader against an invisible enemy and the “pasaways” even if it has not proceeded to it’s intended result
Respect for the Presidency is a sacred value
Many of us, if not all, at one time dreamed of becoming President, do great deeds and see our signatures in Philippine currencies, because of this, we have somehow sanctified the office and the officeholder of the Presidency. There are many myths to the office of the Presidency like only the best and the brightest would become one, that to be President is a matter of destiny and somehow this contributed to the evolution of the overflowing respect for the office. The Presidency as a sacred value is discussed in the Marcos Best President Ever episode of the Naked Politixxx Podcast.
A sacred value has been defined as “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular values”. This consideration of the Presidency as a sacred value insulates the President from inefficiencies and scandals caused by his subordinates and friends.
This respect for the Presidency is further emphasized by the Philippine’s constitutional system. The President is both the head of the state and the government. As head of the state, the President is the public persona who officially embodies a state in its unity and legitimacy.
Rally ’round the flag effect
A poll conducted immediately prior to and in the aftermath of, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center showed public approval of President George W. Bush’s job performance spiking from 51 to 81% or an increase of 35%, the largest rally ’round the flag effect ever recorded. The ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect coined by John Mueller suggests that in times of crisis when the nation is threatened incumbent leaders benefit from a rise in public support.
President Duterte could be enjoying a spike of support because of the pandemic that has ravaged most countries of the world. Filipinos did not mind Duterte’s initial downplaying of the pandemic that lost us time to better prepare, they also do not care about the strict implementation of the quarantine as long as they get cash and relief from the government. The popular mindset is that even superpowers like the United States are brought down to its knees by the coronavirus and so why would you criticize your own government. VP Leni Robredo, in one of her interviews, acknowledges that every time she criticizes President Duterte her approval rating goes downhill which is probably the reason why despite her laudable actions at the height of the pandemic, her most recent approval rating did not move an inch. The public expects everyone regardless of their economic and social circumstances at a time of crisis would rally against a common enemy, in this case, the coronavirus pandemic.
The true test of Duterte’s indestructibility
The pandemic is not yet over and even if it is contained upon the availability of a vaccine, its economic and social impact will continue to be felt for years to come. The next great crisis is the looming recession if it is not already here. The only time President Duterte’s popularity dropped below 80% is when inflation seems to be uncontrollable like when the price of rice went up in September of 2018 that lead to the enactment of the Rice Tariffication Act. That same solution resulted in a precipitous drop in rice prices endangering the incomes and livelihoods of more than two million Filipino rice farmers nationwide which also led to his drop of approval rating in September of 2019. Economic management is his Achilles heel. This is probably the reason why the President took the time to hold a public address regarding the 2021 national budget being hostaged by his own lieutenant in the House of Representatives to avoid further damage to the economy.
If the economy goes downhill leading up to the presidential election in 2022, assuming we will have an election, his popularity will be tested whether he can rub off his popularity to his anointed candidate. A win for his candidate will be the concluding referendum of his presidency.