Why is Duterte still so popular? (1)
President Duterte heads into the midterm elections in style. His allies are expected to dominate the race, setting the stage for the most lopsided elections in contemporary Philippine history.
If current trends stand, the opposition might get just one out of 12 seats up for grabs in the Senate. This is a major historical aberration, since the usual breakdown during the midterm elections is the “6-3-3” distribution: half going to administration candidates and the rest split between independents and opposition members.
By all accounts, this month’s elections will serve as a resounding referendum on Mr. Duterte’s rule. In particular, the impeccable campaign performance of his alter egos such as former special assistant to the president Bong Go, who was catapulted from the margins of the race into the pilot position within a quarter, is a perfect reflection of the President’s endorsement power.
Even more astonishingly, Mr. Duterte gained an unprecedented “excellent” satisfaction rating three years into office. According to the Social Weather Stations’ latest survey, 81 percent of Filipinos approve of his presidency. Now that is an astonishing comeback since Mr. Duterte hit his lowest ratings in late 2018 amid the upsurge in inflation.
There are two competing schools of thought on why Mr. Duterte remains very popular. His supporters claim that this is primarily due to his “political will” and performance in office. In short, he may sound or act harsh, but he still makes the trains run on time.
His critics, however, maintain a diametrically divergent stance. For them, Mr. Duterte’s popularity is primarily a function of propaganda and mass deception.
But both accounts miss the point, since his popularity is more structural and, at the same time, less impressive than meets the eye,
especially for a populist leader like him.
In the course of writing my previous book “The Rise of Duterte,” I stumbled upon several studies and surveys that suggest this is less about Mr. Duterte, and instead more about a nationwide yearning for an authoritarian leader. According to a 2017 academic work titled “The Signs of Deconsolidation” in the Journal of Democracy, just before Mr. Duterte’s rise to power, close to 60 percent of Filipinos preferred “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.” Similar numbers where observed in Turkey and India, which have also elected their own versions of Mr. Duterte.
Interestingly, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election slogan was “He is one of us,” almost identical to Mr. Duterte’s “Atin To Pre!” decades later. Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also a very controversial former local government executive accused of abetting widespread human rights violations during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. He was denied a visa to the United States for almost a decade because of that record.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, only 15 percent of Filipinos expressed categorical commitment to democracy. Up to 67 percent were conditionally committed, while 12 percent welcomed outright authoritarianism. Almost identical trends were observed in India and Indonesia, where right-wing populism is also gaining ground.
In short, Mr. Duterte’s authoritarian brand of populism is in tune with the political zeitgeist.
The second structural factor has to do with economics. The approval ratings of both Benigno Aquino III and Rodrigo Duterte are structurally higher than all their predecessors, underlining a potential correlation with the fact that we have been experiencing our highest average economic growth rate in decades since 2012.
And the third structural factor is geographical. What helps Mr. Duterte’s approval rating is the fact that he, as the first Mindanaoan president, gets almost 100-percent approval in his home island. This provides him a crucial cushion and pushes up his overall approval ratings.
Overall, Mr. Duterte is relishing a structural sweet spot that allows him to maintain very high approval ratings almost irrespective of his policies and behavior in office.
For a populist, however, what matters more than nominal approval rating are levels of enthusiastic support.
The true mark of a populist’s power is the ability to mobilize warm bodies in periods of political crisis, and/or as a means for achieving radical change against entrenched interests. But can Mr. Duterte mobilize millions of supporters and take them to streets, like his contemporary populists around the world, to achieve “real change”?
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