In September 2019, President Rodrigo Duterte obtained a 78 percent approval rating from the public. It wasn’t far from the other ratings he’s enjoyed during his term, which has flip-flopped between 75 and 87 — a consistently high trend that gave him “Teflon status.” The public’s perception of him seems unswayable and is unusually high for a president as controversial and as divisive as he is.
He has continued to be plagued by controversies left and right since. Just in the past few months, he has bungled a pandemic, with the Philippines struggling to flatten the coronavirus curve (just this October 2, the country entered the list of top 20 countries with the most number of cases in the world). His administration has also faced immense public backlash due to the unraveling of a widespread corruption scheme in PhilHealth, the country’s biggest health insurance provider; a controversial beautification project of Manila Bay; the shutdown of ABS-CBN, one of the leading media conglomerates since the 1960s; and the recent circus-like power struggle in the lower house of Congress between two of his allies. His War on Drugs is far from over too, but now with the United Nations prying into the administration’s link to the extrajudicial killings.
Hunger, unemployment, and instability are all on the rise; any president caught in the middle of such huge boulders are expected to be crushed. This is why when Pulse Asia released on October 5 the latest approval ratings of President Duterte, many were surprised. From 78 percent in September last year, he obtained a 13-point increase, with 91 percent of respondents approving of his presidency.
“Rodrigo Duterte is the Philippines’ most powerful and most popular president in the post-Marcos years,” says Cleve Argulles, a Filipino political scientist whose current research is on democracy and Southeast Asian politics. “It’s one thing to have extremely high approval ratings and it’s another thing to rate well in the middle of a pandemic.”
But pandemic or no pandemic, his high approval ratings still strike odd.
According to data from Social Weather Stations, every president from Cory Aquino to her son Noynoy saw themselves reeling from bad approval ratings as the country approached the next presidential election. Save for Arroyo who had consistently mediocre approval ratings, all other presidents post-Marcos faded out two to three years into their terms with their approval ratings falling between 50 to 60 percent. Duterte, on the other hand, has had his lowest approval rating at 75, and has scored higher than 80 percent on most polls.
If the pandemic did anything, it gave Duterte even more room to gain influence. A public health crisis such as COVID-19 has oddly favorable effects for populist leaders because it pulls the people toward the end of the pole from a common enemy. Employing the language of war and assuming the role of a great messiah, Duterte has been able to engage the public through regular speeches that, although controversial for being vague and empty, are packed with messages that solidify his character as a hardworking leader who wants to save his countrymen.
“I understand it’s not intuitive for the president to poll well because of the government’s mismanaged response to the pandemic. It’s quite reasonable to expect that the people will be disappointed with the president’s performance. But populist leaders, like Duterte, are known to really thrive in times of crisis,” Arguelles says.
The same is true for other populist leaders. Donald Trump, for example, continues to baffle his critics with his child-like rhetoric and unpopular stance on a myriad of issues, but still enjoys a largely stable approval rating from Americans. Even the impeachment trial early this year and his country’s worrying state in the middle of a pandemic, not to mention a divisive election season, have not made a significant dent on his approval ratings.
“During times of emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re currently experiencing, we know that people are tempted to support strongman leadership as these types of leaders are idealized as the only kind of leaders who are capable to bring order,“ Arguelles argues. “Similar populist leaders in other parts of the world are also rating really well despite disappointing performance in terms of handling the pandemic. So we are seeing the same trend here.”
Old Tricks Still Work
Even at the onset of his rise to power, Duterte has used the common folk’s insecurity and anxiety to strategically shape the image of his administration. In this time of a pandemic, some of these insecurities and anxieties have been magnified, and though they were exacerbated by the same administration, Duterte and his allies have been able to tilt them toward their favor.
Duterte would later on use tactics reminiscent of his administration’s War on Drugs. According to Arguelles, Duterte has used war metaphors to explain to people what is happening and how he plans to deal with the disease as a leader. He has deployed military men, ordered them to shoot to kill, and had people thrown in jail for being “pasaway.” He has been able to shift the narrative and point fingers on anyone but himself or his men. Interestingly, both the pandemic and his War on Drugs are public health crises confronted by Duterte with a militaristic approach. In both instances, they have resulted in a boost on his approval ratings.
“I think securitizing the pandemic worked to his advantage. He presents and idealizes himself as [a] strong, brutal, and uncompromising leader who can win a war,” Arguelles says.
But the public’s approval should not be taken on its face. After all, there have been actions and events well placed in his administration’s timeline that have contributed greatly to the fame and success Duterte and his allies now enjoy. Duterte has mostly dodged culpability from any pitfalls by either dismissing any issues or putting up the front of an angered leader pissed at the misgivings of his underlings.
His weekly addresses during quarantine serve as smoke and mirrors for a disorganized response to the pandemic. He continually blames the opposition for destabilizing the government, the pasaway for their framed disobedience, and the virus for being the common enemy. He has feigned being inutile, saying we couldn’t do anything but wait for a vaccine at the mercy of other countries. Unsurprisingly, most people have bought this strategy and Duterte is, yet again, on the clear.
The Fruits of War against Media
The country’s media arena has also worked toward Duterte’s advantage. The closure of ABS-CBN and several local media agencies (though most of which have been due to lost income during the pandemic), misinformation, and active farms of DDS online militia have given his popularity a steady scaffold. Adding to this is the speed at which those said troll farms operate to counter news from mainstream media, which has also significantly affected overall public perception of the president. The DDS Cinematic Universe involving several warring characters (including house speaker contenders Lord Allan Velasco and Alan Peter Cayetano) may be confusing, but as long as it does not directly involve Duterte, his name and character remain in pristine condition.
The figures of the survey show that a large part of the country still believes and approves of the president, and so it will not be a surprise if he obtains yet another high mark in the next one. And if this trend persists up to the end of his term, people can be pushed toward voting for another Duterte — whether literally or figuratively.
Without a variety of reliable media organizations that can dissect information, the results of this survey can be consequential for future elections. Our personal perceptions as Filipinos are still highly reliant on our local communities, and so we make certain choices in order to be accepted and safe. Whether we do this consciously or not is up for debate, but what matters more is the yield of these choices.
For now, the unfortunate mix of a lack of access to reliable information, a hoard of active fake news peddlers, and a mainstream media landscape of ill repute have given birth to a confused and vulnerable public trapped in a vicious cycle that favors Duterte and his allies.
Next Moves for the Left
The latest Pulse Asia survey may be a tiny snapshot of the administration’s success in shaping presidential perception, but it is one that captures an important lesson especially for the critical left. There might be errors in the methodology of the survey, sure, but what we must not do is simply disregard how it can affect the public. We can repeatedly argue its reliability, but the mere fact that Duterte has been able to evade the biggest issues of his presidency without much dent on his approval ratings should be enough to sober the opposition.
As Arguelles puts it, though they may be well meaning, the opposition dismissing the survey is worrying. Sticking to “The Good Fight” and its “epistemic arrogance” is a mistake.
“The challenge is not to find fault in the survey but to use the survey data to understand what’s not working so far with what the opposition is doing. There may be issues with the survey and discussions of those are of course welcome, but we might be wasting our time tilting at windmills.
“The lessons of [the] 2016 and 2019 elections are very clear: [I]t is important to speak up but listening to others is as important. . . . Otherwise, 2022 is going to be a horrible deja vu,” Arguelles says.