Populism and popularity: 4 years of Duterte at the Philippines’ helm

By Sara Gomez Armas

Manila, Jun 30 (efe-epa).- Investigated by the UN and the International Criminal Court, President Rodrigo Duterte celebrates four years today at the head of the Philippines enthroned in the presidency thanks to his populist measures – for some authoritarians – and with popularity without precedents in the history of the country’s democracy.

Duterte started 2020 with a satisfaction rate of 82%, according to the Social Weather Station (SWS) consultancy – a record of his presidency that began on June 30, 2016 – and an unprecedented level of popularity for a Philippine president who enters the fifth year of his single mandate and even for most world leaders.

The Philippines’ COVID-19 quarantine, one of the longest and strictest in the world, has prevented SWS or Pulse Asia, the country’s main pollsters, from carrying out new polls on Duterte’s popular support, although several analysts consulted by EFE agree on that its management of the pandemic will take its toll on that support.

“COVID-19 can affect his popularity because health and pandemics are not his area of concern or priority. President Duterte is a peace and order president,” the science professor told EFE University of the Philippines politician Maria Ela Atienza.

In fact, the president has based his response to the pandemic on militarization, with a rhetoric of war against the virus and on several occasions disregarding the advice of the medical-scientific community, a strategy that has proven to be unsuccessful since daily infections They multiply.

“Based on the ongoing crisis, he has no fresh responses to the current crisis, resorting to his usual curse words against critics and relying so much on many Cabinet secretaries who are retired military generals,” said Atienza.

However, a survey released by SWS earlier this month shows that 84 percent of Filipinos believe that strict confinement is worthwhile if it serves to contain COVID-19, although a similar percentage of the population, 83 percent, admits that their quality of life has worsened in recent months.

Political analyst Richard Heydarian stressed to EFE that in the Philippines there is a “direct correlation” between the president’s satisfaction index and the good performance of the economy, which in the last decade has grown above 6 percent per year, a rate that has been seen slowed by the pandemic, as the country has entered a recession for the first time since 1998.

To date, the worst result for Duterte’s popularity was in the third quarter of 2018, at 6 percent, when inflation soared to 7 percent, a decade’s record.

The first month of quarantine alone left more than five million new unemployed in the Philippines, a figure that can double by the end of the year as popular discontent among the lower-middle classes, its main source of support, continues.

“Now, are we going to expect his numbers to go down sharply? I don’t think so. But I don’t think any credible survey will suggest that he retains his high net approval ratings,” Heydarian said.

Waiting for specific polls that punctuate Duterte’s administration, it does not seem that the pandemic will have a high political cost for him, as it has happened with other populist leaders such as Donald Trump in the US – who is playing for reelection -, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom.

One of the paradoxes that surround the figure of Duterte is that the high index of support for his management in general is not accompanied by strong support for his star policies, such as the war on drugs or the diplomatic approach to China.

Ninety-three percent of Filipinos repudiate Duterte’s passive stance in their territorial dispute with the “Asian giant” in the South China Sea; while 76 percent reject human rights violations and the bloodbath of their anti-drug campaign, which has killed some 30,000 people according to humanitarian organizations.

His sexist comments in one of the most egalitarian countries in the world; His insults to the Church in Asia’s most Catholic nation, as well as his attacks on press freedom and the judicial persecution of his critics in the region’s oldest democracy, have also not cracked his internal reputation.

The social lethargy in the face of his authoritarian gestures, which increasingly resemble the dictator Ferdinand Marcos who was expelled from the country in 1986 by a peaceful popular revolt, is explained by what some analysts have coined as “the disillusionment of democracy”, where the Power is still inherited among the Philippine oligarchy.

With hopes of social justice and the sharing of the wealth that democracy brought frustrated, the Filipino popular classes prefer the “strong man” that Duterte embodies, with a populist rhetoric and anti-elite – although he comes from it – despite the fact that this involves sacrificing democratic liberties.

“Definitely, the consolidation of democracy in the Philippines has been greatly affected by the Duterte presidency, the fragile democratic institutions, rule of law, and checks and balances the country has,” Atienza stressed.

A reduced opposition seems to have surrendered to the overwhelming power of the president and awaits the elections in 2022 to promote a turn in the country; although perhaps it is too late because the speculations about the continuity of “Dutertism” sound strong.

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