Why is President Duterte popular?

Calixto V. Chikiamco-125

Commentators dropped their jaws when the latest Pulse Asia post-pandemic survey showed that President Duterte’s trust and approval ratings soared to 91%. President Duterte seems to be defying gravity or walking on water since the country is the worst in Asia in handling the pandemic, and the economy has gone into a deep recession.

Some have suggested that fear may have colored the respondents’ answers. However, even before the pandemic, President Dutere had been enjoying gravity-defying, sky-high ratings. What gives?

The same complex mysterious logic seems to be at work in the United States where US President Donald Trump garnered the highest number of votes ever for a Republican candidate and nearly won the election, save for hundreds of thousands of votes in some key states. This despite his handling of the pandemic, his misogynistic and racist comments, his defiance of democratic norms, his attacks on the media and peddling of false stories, and his obnoxious tweets.

However, it can be said that President Trump retains the loyalty of his base because he has channeled the anger, anxiety, angst, and resistance of a significant number of Americans over globalization, technological disruption, and gut-wrenching changes in culture, power, and identity.

These complex factors had been caused by urbanization, demographic changes, increasing cultural diversity, and inequality.


What about President Duterte? My theory is this: President Duterte has captured the political zeitgeist. He has channeled the people’s anger and disappointment over the Yellow People Power Revolution. More than 30 years after that revolution, which restored the pre-Martial Law electoral democracy, quality of life hasn’t improved much for the majority, except for the elite few. Before Duterte won, public services, from telecommunications to transport, were bad, if not getting worse.

Poverty remained widespread, especially in rural areas. In the peripheries, especially in Mindanao, its relative underdevelopment fed a sentiment of resentment over the exploitation by Metro Manila-based oligarchies. Food prices, especially rice, remained high while agricultural growth had stagnated. The only hope for families was for the fathers, mothers, daughters and sons to continue to leave and go abroad, but at great social cost.

The political institutions and the bureaucracy set up by the Yellow Revolution and the 1987 Constitution haven’t lived up to the ideals of liberal democracy either. They have proven to be corrupt, inefficient, and incompetent. The political system is dominated by dynasties, with a revolving door of family members making a mockery of term limits and inclusive democracy. The party-list system has been corrupted and is a big joke. The political actors have proven to be insensitive, greedy, and selfish rather than being public servants they are supposed to be. Worse, the greed isn’t getting moderated, but perceived to be intensifying, with billions of pesos, not just thousands, being lost in massive graft and corruption.

Comes now President Duterte in 2016, who sensed the people’s disappointment with life under the Yellow Revolution and the 1987 Constitution and promised that “change is coming.” Fiery and foul-mouthed, he represented a populist revolt against the status quo.

Viewed from this perspective, his political moves acquire logic. He proceeded to dismantle the linchpins of Yellow political power, or the coalition that ushered in the People Power Revolution: the Catholic Church, the Yellow-linked anti-Marcos oligarchies, and the ABS-CBN media empire. He also wrenched foreign policy from the pro-Americanism of the Yellows. It must be remembered that the pro-Americanism of the Yellows arose from US support to nudge the Marcoses from power (Senator Paul Laxalt told the former dictator Marcos to “cut and cut cleanly”).

The people had become so disgusted with the status quo that they have excused Duterte for his profanities, his breaking of norms, his taking of legal shortcuts, his misogynistic remarks, and, yes, sometimes his incompetence and trust in corrupt officials. The Yellow democracy hadn’t improved their lives anyway.

What about Duterte’s anti drug war?

Duterte correctly perceived that it was the poor who were primarily victims of the drug scourge, the destruction of families it causes, and the lawlessness it spawns. From the drug-addled canto boys who harass the neighborhood, to the drug dealers who prey on breadwinners and turn them into addicts, the drug menace is palpable to the poor. However, the authorities were not just doing nothing to stop the drug menace, but were complicit in the lawlessness in communities.

One might say that Duterte applied shortcuts with the EJKs (Extra Judicial Killings) and the violation of human rights to try to solve the drug menace. However, to a public who are used to failed institutions, shortcuts could be justified. Duterte, the smart politician, grasped this political reality and used it to nurture his tough guy, problem-solver, action-oriented image.

However, also key to his popularity is that he has subdued inflation, in particular rice inflation. In this regard, rice import liberalization and the dismantling of the NFA monopoly, which no president dared to do for the past 50 years, was the principal instrument. With rice import liberalization, rice prices stabilized. Prior to rice import liberalization, consumers were paying an implicit tariff of as much as 90 to 100% on imported rice and prices were highly volatile due to the slow and political decisions being made by the National Food Authority (NFA), which had the monopoly to import rice. Furthermore, the rice tariffication law funded a Rice Competitive Enhancement Fund from the 30% tariff, which enabled the government to compensate the losses of farmers.

Dr. Mahar Mangahas, president of Social Weather Stations, recently made an interesting presentation about Surveys on Inclusivity on the Past and Future Trends on the Quality of Life in the Pilipinas Conference of Stratbase Institute. According to Mangahas, growth was inclusive only in the period of 2015 to 2019 with surveys of gainers less losers turning positive during that period. Net optimism also rose from 2009 to 2019 but was marked by higher levels of net optimism above 30% during the last five years (except for a brief time when inflation rose in mid-2018).

When I asked Mangahas to what he attributes the rise in perception of growth inclusivity and rising net optimism, he pointed to two factors: the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program (which started under former President Arroyo, expanded under former President Aquino, and was institutionalized under the law under President Duterte) and the benign inflation rate, which enabled real wages to rise.

Although the surveys on economic inclusivity and net optimism can’t be directly related to the popularity of a president, it provides a context of the public’s perception of life under President Duterte.

And while both former President Aquino and Duterte can bask in the Conditional Cash Transfer program, contrast Duterte’s dismantling of the NFA rice monopoly with former President Aquino’s extension of quantitative restrictions on rice imports when it was supposed to be lifted in 2012 as a commitment to the World Trade Organization.

However, back to my thesis that Duterte builds his political capital from the resentments, disappointment, and anger at the failures of the Yellow Revolution. The 1987 Constitution, with its protectionist provisions that date back to the 1935 Constitution, enabled the persistence and growth of monopolies in telecommunications, transport, and other key sectors of the economy. (In other words, the Yellow revolution wasn’t a revolution at all, but a restoration with protectionist policies favouring the oligarchy still in place.) The Philippines has the most concentrated economy in Asia, according to the World Bank, resulting in high prices and poor service foisted on the public by the monopolists.

Hence, Duterte’s tirades against “oligarchs.” But apart from tirades, he has also decisively improved telecommunications services. In the telecommunications sector, where the public acutely feels the high prices and poor quality of the internet, his administration, especially the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) under former Acting Secretary Eliseo Rio, Jr., injected more competition in that sector (through a third telco, Ditto Telecom, headed by Duterte friend, Davao businessman Dennis Uy), introduced public wifi, passed number portability, adopted a common tower program, and got Facebook’s submarine cable to go through the Philippines. The result has been palpable with the improvement of local telecommunication services and its stability during the lockdown period (though still behind our Asian peers.)

However, the problem with Duterte is that while he may have grasped the big political picture, his strategy and his execution have been incoherent. He flirted for a time with the Left, losing valuable time. His former Agrarian Reform Secretary tried to expand a clearly discredited Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. His leftist former Social Welfare Secretary tried to throttle the Conditional Cash Transfer program. He has appointed incompetents and corrupt officials and has continued to defend them. He makes a show of firing them only to recycle them.

Thinking like a mayor, he mistakenly believes in the power of government. Therefore, his administration pivoted away from PPP (Public-Private Partnership), perhaps in his mistaken belief that government was better than the oligarchs at execution, and embraced ODA (Official Development Assistance) and GAA (General Appropriations Act). However, the bureaucracy continued to be inefficient, incompetent, and corrupt across a range of institutions — the Bureau of Corrections, PhilHealth, Bureau of Immigration, Department of Public Works and Highways, Department of Transportation, Department of Health, etc. Therefore, his signature BBB (Build, Build, Build) program is characterized by under accomplishment.

Coming from Davao, he also thought federalism was the answer. He has only partially realized that it’s not unitary government, but the concentrated, urban-based economic power of monopolies that’s the cause of underdevelopment of the peripheries. His pro-China policy hasn’t yielded much to the benefit of the country. He has so far failed to use his huge political capital to reform the two economic foundations of the Yellow Revolution: the protectionist provisions of the Constitution and the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law. The former assured the dominance of monopolies and the latter caused land fragmentation, perpetuating agricultural stagnation and rural poverty.

Will the tanking economy and his mismanagement of the pandemic bring Duterte crashing down? The initial post-lockdown Pulse Asia survey doesn’t seem to indicate it, perhaps because people believe he cannot be faulted for the pandemic. However, despite a mischaracterization that Duterte is populist, his administration is fiscally conservative. Despite the country having the worst management of the pandemic in Asia and suffering the worst economic contraction, the Philippines has the stingiest economic stimulus. With hunger, joblessness, and bankruptcies becoming more widespread (and the public’s net optimism plunging), will the administration hold on to its tightfisted policy and perhaps suffer political consequences in the coming election period?

As for the Liberal Party (LP), its political future cannot be anchored on human rights or even decency in words and style alone. For a time, the Liberal Party was illiberal: going against the classical liberal ideas of open markets and free competition. Former President Aquino extended the National Food Authorities’ rice importation monopoly despite the country’s commitment to liberalize the sector in 2012. He also shot down the efforts of LP leaders former Senate President Franklin Drilon and former House Speaker Sonny Belmonte to amend the economic provisions of the Constitution, cementing the power of monopolies. Not surprisingly, with rice prices unstable and public services remaining poor, it paid a political price in the polls. The LP’s Mar Roxas, a conservative and member of a landed clan like former President Aquino, lost in the presidential elections in 2016. In 2019, the Liberal Party anchored its senatorial campaign on Otso Diretso (a call for straight voting without explaining why) and human rights. It lost miserably.

The future of the Liberal Party is dependent on whether it can recognize the failures of the Yellow Revolution while holding on to its popular anti-dictatorship principles, and whether it can become a true liberal party. This means that the party should not only be seen as espousing democracy and human rights, but also advocating open markets and competition, which will drive down prices and improve services to the public, and institutional reform to improve good governance and reduce corruption. It must also understand the causes of the people’s anger, anxieties, and resentment at the status quo and use that understanding toward a political and economic program, even if it means reforming the 1987 Constitution. Looking good and nice in contrast to Duterte isn’t going to cut it.

President Duterte’s soft spot, however, is that he has embraced China when surveys show that the public has much distrust of China. (A fact that the LP’s 2019 campaign failed to capitalize on.) However, as the cunning politician that Duterte is, he can be seen making nuanced pivots to soften his China lover image. He pardoned US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Pembleton for killing a transgender, upheld the country’s victory over China in the UN Arbitral Ruling in a UN speech, postponed the cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement, and lifted the moratorium on gas exploration in the Reed Bank without an objection from China, possibly pointing to a peaceful resolution over the South China Seas dispute. He has also allowed the tax authorities to impose taxes on Chinese-run POGOs (Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations), which are unpopular, causing a number of them to leave.

Just as Trumpism will remain even if President Trump is gone from power, Dutertismo is likely to remain a powerful political idea and political force.

Calixto V. Chikiamco is a board director of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>