Philippines democracy

Loved and loathed: What is the secret behind Duterte’s enduring popularity?

With Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte marking four years since his inauguration, we look at the legacy of among the world's most divisive leaders. How is the strongman at once so passionately loathed by his detractors and resoundingly loved by his supporters?

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June 30, 2020
Loved and loathed: What is the secret behind Duterte’s enduring popularity?
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on June 26. Photo: King Rodrigues/Presidential Photographers Division/AFP

To outsiders, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte might look like an enigma.

Regularly criticised both at home and abroad for his deadly war on drugs, authoritarian leanings and combative, unmuzzled rhetoric, Duterte detractors chalk up the legacy of his four years in power as one of destruction and democratic erosion. But that’s only part of the story of public opinion – despite steadfast opposition, his administration still regularly enjoys sky-high approval ratings which, by some measures, circle around 87%.

Today marks exactly four years since Duterte’s 30 June inauguration at Malacañang Palace in Manila. To unpack the seeming dichotomy of opinion on the nation’s 16th president, the Globe spoke with Filipino commentators about the enduring appeal of this polarising figure. 

Tony La Vina, a lawyer and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, describes Duterte’s public branding as that of an everyman figure. 

“[Duterte] is able to make the claim that he is like an ordinary Filipino. The leaders before were above them,” La Vina explained. 

He believes Duterte’s enduring appeal is that of a strongman leader that is able to connect to Filipinos, with the now-president campaigning in 2016 as a charismatic, populist candidate offering easily understood policy goals. La Vina adds that Duterte’s macho personality, brutal language, and tough attitude is popular amongst Filipinos, and his platform – even the internationally criticised, violent campaign against illegal drugs – is packaged to appeal to regular people.

While the so-called war on drugs has been blasted by human rights groups, some polls in the Philippines have found enduring support of the push even in the face of police and vigilante killings of alleged drug dealers and users.

Before his presidency, Duterte was the long-time mayor of Davao City, a major regional hub on the country’s southern Mindanao island, in which he earned a reputation for his strong handed law-and-order tactics. He campaigned in 2016 on the back of that approach and his subsequent election victory was seen as a response to the perceived weaknesses of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, whose administration was embroiled with scandals such as the Mamasapano clash, a pitched battle in that municipality between government forces and Islamist insurgents. The clash and its aftermath plummeted the approval ratings of Aquino, who was already seen by some as lacking commonality with the average Filipino due to his background in the country’s political elite. 

Duterte won the 2016 elections with just 38% of the vote but, by the end of 2019, he had scored record-high domestic popularity. That year, the two main national polls, Pulse Asia and SWS, placed his approval rating at 87%

“Duterte promised ‘real change’ and people clung on to that,” said Lian Buan, a reporter on the justice beat at independent Filipino news outlet Rappler. “There’s a great divide between the rich and the poor and I think the poor, or the lesser educated people, have felt ignored and have felt unheard for a very very long time.”

The Rule of Law index has found deteriorating norms in the Philippines under Duterte’s administration. The index suggests the increasing power of the executive relative to the legislature and judiciary, a trend the president has escalated, has manifested in several controversial policies since 2016. 

Early on in his presidency, Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao in response to conflicts between the army and Islamic militants there. Under the Constitution, a period of martial law cannot exceed 60 days, but Duterte was able to extend it for over two years with the approval of Congress for the stated purpose of fighting the rebellion. The Filipino Congress and Supreme Court have thrice allowed Duterte to extend martial law in Mindanao.

There are people in the Philippines who do not consider human rights as the most important thing … To them, Duterte is popular because [he] is fighting drug addicts and drug traffickers

Duterte had built a reputation for combating drugs and crime during his time as mayor of Davao City and, once president, he launched a nationwide campaign to tackle illegal drug use under the narrative that drugs are an existential threat to society. The Filipino war on drugs has given the police free reign to deal with suspected drug users and traffickers and has led to the deaths of thousands in suspected premeditated, extra-judicial killings. 

Estimates of the death toll from the drug war have ranged from 8,000 by official measures to 27,000 by the Commission on Human Rights. Human rights groups have heavily criticised the campaign for its alleged human rights abuses and lack of respect for rule of law. Investigators from the UN have said Duterte’s rhetoric has effectively put out “permission to kill” in the streets. The International Criminal Court is also currently investigating accusations of crimes committed under the pretext of the drug war.

Duterte has also framed crime and drugs to be one of the most pressing problems in the Philippines, using it to motivate the brutal approach to both drug dealers and users. The attorney La Vina said that narrative has resonated with the public.

“There are people in the Philippines who do not consider human rights as the most important thing,” he said. “To them, Duterte is popular because [he] is fighting drug addicts and drug traffickers.”

In the near future, an anticipated Anti-Terror Bill, ostensibly written to protect citizens from terrorism, may serve to further limit the rights and freedoms of Filipinos. Critics say the bill blurs the line between terrorists and dissenters with a vague definition of ‘terrorism’ and lengthens the period for warrantless detention, showing little concern for due process. Advocates of the bill say it’s a necessary tool to fight an ongoing communist insurgency. By some accounts, the running battles between insurgents and the state have contributed to the deaths of more than 40,000 people since 1969. The proposal is awaiting Duterte’s signature to become law but, even without it, the bill can automatically lapse into passage on July 9.

Journalists have looked at the law as an ominous portent of speech restrictions yet to come. Earlier this year, Congress approved the shutdown of the ABS-CBN television network, the largest in the Philippines. Just a few weeks ago, a judge convicted veteran journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa of a ‘cyber libel’ charge denounced by speech advocates as politically motivated.

It is in these kind of heavy-handed policies that perhaps the biggest contradiction lies — when taken issue-by-issue, a clear discrepancy emerges between public opinion on Duterte’s actions and his high approval rating. 

A Filipino man gestures during a demonstration a rally held to welcome President Rodrigo Duterte near the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines on 30 June 2016. Photo: EPA/STR

Duterte’s apparently passive stance in the South China Sea dispute with Beijing has left Filipinos dissatisfied, with a July poll recording that as many as 93% believe he needs to regain control of the region’s waterways.

Polling on the war on drugs, too, shows that Filipinos do not trust the police, with more than 70% believing there are human rights abuses in the campaign even while the overwhelming majority shows support for the movement as a whole. The national surveys suggest that the public may not always agree with Duterte’s stances but still backs his administration.

“There’s a rational trade-off that is taking place,” said John Nery, an opinion columnist at the Philippine Daily Inquirer and chair of the Ateneo Asian Center of Journalism, as he attempted to square the high ratings with adverse opinion on individual issues.

It ties in our Filipino attitude of wanting to be led by an iron hand … We want a strong leader and sometimes a strong leader makes mistakes and kills innocence, that’s the price we have to pay

The discrepancy may show that Filipinos are concerned about the war on drugs but may see losses in human rights losses as an exchange for peace and order. 

“It ties in our Filipino attitude of wanting to be led by an iron hand,” Nery said. “We want a strong leader and sometimes a strong leader makes mistakes and kills innocent [people], that’s the price we have to pay.” 

Nery believed that, historically, the Philippines have been attracted to strongman leaders since the Spanish and US colonial periods. The country was also ruled by Ferdinand Marcos from 1965-86, who placed the Philippines under martial law for 14 years.

Similarities in the closure of news outlets and weaponisation of law have attracted comparisons between Duterte and the dictatorial Marcos. However, Nery also noted that “public opinion has been very, very clear that people don’t want to go back to the dictatorship under Marcos. People have a very strong preference for democracy.” 

The Rappler journalist Buan added there is an appeal for leaders that offer quick-fixes and take drastic actions to solve the nation’s persistent problems. 

“[Duterte] has a good segment of supporters that do not mind people dropping dead,” Buan said. “For them, one dead criminal makes them safer, makes their family safer without regard for that person to enjoy the due process, or whether that person was a criminal at all. He connects to that segment.”

But now, with Covid-19 striking the Philippines among the hardest in Southeast Asia, it’s uncertain if Duterte’s once unnassailable popularity will be sustained now the pandemic begins to wind down and people emerge from the rubble to face a severely weakened economy. 

The Duterte administration has shown a particularly strong response to the global public health crisis, imposing strict lockdown measures and over 100,000 people arrested for violating them. As of June 30, the Philippines has over 36,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, the third-highest total case count in Southeast Asia. 

Studies suggest mass closures and lockdown measures, while enacted for public health, negatively impacted many Filipinos, especially the lower-income population. The first month of quarantine in the Philippines left more than five million new people unemployed, a figure with the potential to double by the end of the year. According to the SWS poll, 83% of Filipinos reported their quality of life has worsened, and 43% anticipate their lives worsening in the next 12 months.

For the remaining duration of Duterte’s presidency, these measures and the hardship they have inflicted have brought into question whether he can sustain the support levels he once commanded among the Filipino public. 

“The irony is by ruling with an iron hand, the government is making sure that more people will get affected [by Covid-19],” Nery said. 

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