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Trusting Duterte?

Political observers have viewed, with delight or despair, survey reports on the extended “honeymoon period” enjoyed by President Duterte. Social Weather Stations (SWS) chair Mahar Mangahas cautions readers to take these reports in historical context. Every president after Ferdinand Marcos has maintained a net satisfaction score of at least +30 for a year, except for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who got no honeymoon rating and no positive performance score in her nine years in office.

Duterte’s honeymoon now extends over 10 quarters, approaching P-Noy’s 15 honeymoon quarters, which attracted little notice. Different in many respects, both presidents enjoyed the people’s trust.  But what is the source, significance and consequence of this “trust” in the President? Can it be bought or “engineered” through social media and propaganda? Does it drive people’s beliefs and behavior? Is this trust transferable, as many electoral candidates, busily currying the president’s favor, clearly believe?

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We value the judgment of people we trust; we follow the prescriptions of our trusted doctor.  The quality of people’s trust in President Duterte seems of a different character. Duterte spews venom against the United Nations, the United States and the Church. But these insults have not affected the public’s perception of his targets.

Fifty-four percent of survey respondents were aware of the complaints against the drug war presented to the International Criminal Court (ICC); 40 percent knew about Duterte‘s decision to leave the ICC. But the ICC’s trust rating rose from +20 to +30 in 2018. The United Nations had a net trust rating of +61, followed by the United States at +60.

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China, upon which Duterte has heaped lavish praise (“I simply love Xi Jinping!”) rated a -7 trust rating. By the September 2018 survey, all    respondents were aware of the conflict with China in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), including the confiscation by the Chinese coast guard of the catch of Filipino fishermen and the inability of the government to prevent the Chinese from encroaching on our exclusive fishing grounds. Ninety-nine percent knew that China was using reclaimed islands as military bases. Hearing presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo interpret Duterte’s policies on the WPS, people might wonder who the President represents.

The December 2018 survey showed that 89 percent of respondents considered regaining control of the islands very important or somewhat important, and favored a more proactive policy posture. Eighty-eight percent believed it was wrong to ignore China’s construction activities in areas claimed by the Philippines. Ninety-three percent sought the strengthening of the country’s military and, especially, naval capabilities.  Seventy-seven percent favored mobilizing international support for our diplomatic objectives.

On the federalism issue, net support for a new level of local government was 8 percent. SWS flatly denies any alleged popular “cry for federalism.” In the war against drugs, the number who believed the police narrative that they killed suspects in self-defense nearly matched the number who dismissed this kwento as a lie, 27 to 28 percent. Eighty-nine percent considered it important that the police capture, not kill, the suspects.

The surveys also show that most of the respondents recognize the vulgarity of the language Mr. Duterte directs against his critics and at women, and respondents likewise considered vulgar his pressure on a married OFW in Seoul for a kiss on the lips. Like unwanted policies, however, vulgarity has not reduced their regard for Mr. Duterte. Hence, this curious “puzzlement,” this disconnect between the trust people express for Mr. Duterte and their strong disagreement with his behavior and his policies.

We need a deeper probe into the meaning and source of people’s trust in their leaders, and how it is won or lost, to understand its potential for helping or harming the country. Good survey grades may deceive Mr. Duterte into believing he must persist in what he is doing because he is following the people’s will—which a more comprehensive reading of survey results contradicts.

But how long will the people continue to reward him with high marks for pursuing policies they reject and for violating values they hold dear?

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected] gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club.

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