AFTER weathering over two years of controversy and international condemnation, the latest polls show Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is facing his first significant drop in popularity back home. But it doesn’t appear to be his bloody war on drugs or the president’s confrontational approach that threatens to topple the public’s previously unshakable confidence.
The firebrand leader has up until now enjoyed a popularity almost unheard of when it comes to democratically elected leaders with Filipinos remaining fiercely loyal to their straight-shooting leader.
One year into Duterte’s tenure, Asian Correspondent spoke to Duterte supporters in the Philippines to try to understand this seemingly unwavering support.
Given the latest polls – and with inflation soaring, tax hikes in place, and the cost of living spiralling – 18 months on, we check in to see if their opinions have changed.
‘Delivering what he promised’
While not quite as steadfast as them perhaps once were, all retained their positive outlooks despite the cracks starting to show.
Fyke Silvano’s positive opinion of the controversial president hasn’t changed.
The Electrical Engineering graduate has seen some real change in his home province of Surigao del Sur, Mindanao, since Duterte came to power.
Under Duterte’s ambitious nationwide “Build, Build, Build” initiative – aimed at accelerating infrastructure spending and developing industries to create jobs – Silvano says he has noticed roads are widened and more farm-to-market roads have been built.
Crime – one of the major pillars of Duterte’s campaign – has also been on the wane. And while his policies may not be internationally commended, they are effective in this respect.
“His war on drugs is a success, our municipality is now one of those places declared as drug-free. And I thank him for that,” Silvano told me. “Criminality also has been decreasing year-on-year by two digits. So I must say he’s doing great.”
The nationwide crime rate since Duterte took office has been on a rapid decline, with one significant exception.
Philippine National Police (PNP) data shows the crime rate from July 2016 to June 2018 dropped by 21.5 percent compared to the same period from 2014 to 2016 – an impressive statistic for any new leader.
This was across the board, including crimes against persons, such as rape and physical assault. The only exception was the murder rate, which went up by 1.5 percent nationwide, and soared by a whopping 112 percent in Metro Manila, over the same time period.
Diplomatic faux pas
Silvano also touted Duterte’s foreign policy as his best achievement. While he may have been perceived as “anti-West,” Silvano says, the Philippines’ military ties have never been stronger. The country’s involvement in the Australian Kakadu military exercises and the US-led Balikatan military drills are evidence of that, he believes.
But he acknowledges that it has not all been plain sailing, conceding there have been instances when the firebrand leader’s tempestuous nature hasn’t always worked in the country’s favour.
“I admit that he is guilty of diplomatic faux pas,” Silvano said in reference to Duterte’s sometimes vulgar and ill-considered language.
“If he could just explain further his speeches rather than giving phrases that are not clear. One example is the ‘Stupid God’ blunder he made. Religious people thought he committed blasphemy.”
In a speech in July, Duterte called God “stupid,” sparking anger in the largely Catholic country.
This was far from the first time he’s caused offence.
In February he ordered soldiers to shoot female rebel fighters “in the vagina.”
During his election campaign in 2016, speaking about the 1989 prison riot in which an Australian missionary was killed, and inmates had lined up to rape her, Duterte joked he wished he had the opportunity to rape her himself.
“Was I mad because of the rape? Yes, that’s one. But, she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste,” he said.
He has repeatedly threatened to kill corrupt police officers, admitted to murder, called former-US president Barack Obama a “son of bitch”, labelled the Pope a “son of a whore,” and likened himself to Hitler.
But this stream of gaffes has not deterred some of his staunchest supporters who maintain their pitbull-like loyalty to their president.
When asked if he still believed Duterte was a “true patriot,” Manila native Efhraim Santiago replied: “Yes, he is. And it is more concrete now.”
It hasn’t been an easy year for Duterte. His tax hike, aimed at eradicating poverty, seems to be having the opposite effect.
The Guardian reports the policy raised the price of everyday goods with a value-added tax, meaning the cost of food rose by 10 percent in September, with fish up by 12 percent and vegetables by 20 percent.
In the southern region of Zamboanga, a severe rice shortage caused prices to soar by a reported 75 percent. To avoid the worst effects, the government lifted restrictions on rice imports to try to relieve demand and bring prices down.
Inflation currently stands at almost seven percent, a nine-year high for the country. Charity Save the Children said it had affected some eight million food-poor families. The group even released a statement urging new mothers to breastfeed their infants to fight the risk of malnutrition and “decrease the financial burden” of rising food prices.
Critics of Duterte’s leadership have also found themselves in hot water with the law. The most recent being Senator Antonio Trillanes after attempts were made to revive a 15-year-old charge of rebellion.
For Duterte loyalists, all these concerns can be explained away, blaming all others but the man in charge.
The opposition and the media are creating “hysteria.” Inflation is due to the “the rising prices of petroleum.” The rice shortage is caused by “hoarders” and “greedy traders.” And most Filipinos “want Trillanes on death row” anyway, the interviewees told me.
Even the popularity polls themselves are called into question as those carrying them out are “politically aligned against Duterte,” according to Santiago, who maintains Duterte’s popularity is “higher than ever.”
An underlying distrust of mainstream media seems to underpin a disbelief in the issues.
Duterte has repeatedly accused the media of sensationalising news stories about him, especially regarding his war on drugs. But data from the Pew Research Centre shows this argument isn’t holding with the majority of Filipinos – 86 percent of whom believe news is reported accurately in the country.
Despite this trust, press freedom has significantly dropped under the Duterte administration, with the Philippines falling from 127 to 133 worst country out of 180 for media expression, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Human Rights Watch accused Duterte of carrying out an “assault on media freedom.”
But that doesn’t concern many Filipinos who are now used to hearing international rights groups berate their president.
International criticism, media reports, and seemingly higher cost of living, have little effect on followers like Santiago, whose only regret is that Duterte didn’t run for president sooner.