Voters have rewarded the rough-hewn Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with his highest approval rating since he took office, with net satisfaction at plus 66 percent, tying his personal record in June 2107 and giving him a tailwind sailing into midterm elections set for May 13.
The question is why. After a 21-year siege under the onetime strongman Ferdinand Marcos, nine years of it under martial law that ended in 1986, the Philippines’ 100 million-odd people appear once again to hand over the control of their civil liberties to a leader showing deepening authoritarian tendencies.
“I ask myself everyday what props up Duterte's approval ratings,” said an analyst with a domestic think tank. “As far as I can tell, it’s absolute dominance of social media, people get most of the their news from Facebook, and the president and his supporters have a better social media operation and strategy and two, people love the tough guy populist attitude ‘I'm going to kill you if you are corrupt.’ They like having a tough-talking president who makes Filipinos look strong. “
According to Social Weather Stations, which released its first-quarter 2019 survey this week, the president’ net satisfaction rating owes its success to Metro Manila, the country’s 12.8 million capital conurbation, as well as other areas of Luzon, the Visayas island chain and especially the island of Mindanao following the creation of the new Bangsamoro government.
That rating is in the face of actions that include condoning the extrajudicial killing of anywhere between 4,948 (estimate by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency) and 22,983 (Philippine National Police) drug users and dealers up to Sept. 30, 2018. The killings are said to be continuing at a rate of 33 per day by police and death squads believed associated with the police.
“President Duterte and his supporters and enablers have been effective in communicating two key messages to a public that has grown weary and frustrated from years of successive democratically elected administrations that have been corrupt, incompetent, or both,” said Jose Luis Gascon, the chairman of the Philippines Human Rights Council. “As a result they have failed to address the poverty, underdevelopment and injustice that have remained in the country since the (dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.)”
From the start of his presidency in July 2016, Duterte has used dubious law to get at his enemies in ways that smack of the Marcos administration, keeping his most distinguished critic, former Attorney General Leila de Lima, in jail without trial on charges of complicity in drug deals that international critics allege are specious after, as a member of the Senate she attempted an investigation into his infamous war on drugs. He used the impeachment process to get rid of the highly respected former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and replace her with Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, an ally, after Sereno had rebuffed Duterte’s attempts to go after judges he accused of being sympathetic to drug interests.
He has sought to drive out his own vice president Leni Robredo, another critic, and replace her with Marcos scion Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a member of the legislature. He has sought to hamstring his chief legislative critic, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who took over as Duterte’s chief detractor after the jailing of de Lima. He has used various laws to go after the most responsible critics in the press. He has particularly attacked the respected news site Rappler, his chief journalistic critic, and ordered the arrest of its publisher Maria Ressa, who was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year in response to his attempts at intimidation.
Despite that, according to Social Weather Stations, the president’s approval is “very good” among both men, at 81 percent satisfied and 13 percent dissatisfied, and women, with 76 percent satisfied against 12 percent dissatisfied. Approval is up in all age groups, rising to excellent from very good among 35-to- 44-year-olds. It rose from very good to excellent among college graduates, with 86 percent satisfied and 1 percent dissatisfied.
“He is an anti-elite outsider with a track record to 'fix' the broken political system if only the people trust him,” Gascon said. His message is “that the root cause to all the obstacles to development in the country is the lack of 'law & order' as seen from uncontrolled crime which he explains is traceable to the proliferation of drugs, hence his so-called war-on-drugs. It’s not a new playbook. Hitler and the Nazis offered a similar false promise that got them to power after the first World War and the Depression."
They effectively used propaganda as well as a divide-and-rule strategy to keep themselves in control until they ultimately lost to superior armed force, Gascon continued. “Other populist authoritarian leaders today are using this same time-tested approach across the world.”
“Of course," Gascon said, "he himself comes from the political elites and is perpetuating his own dynasty but has created an 'US vs THEM' narrative where he has effectively portrayed himself to be the 'champion of the people' against their 'enemies.' He is constantly engaged in a process of 'othering' his (and the people's) perceived foes and presenting a solution that involves eliminating them... he has consolidated power & most post-authoritarian institutions that had been established in order to check against abuse of authority have either been co-opted or are otherwise ineffective against the onslaught of this agenda.”
In January 2018, the European Commission expressed strong concerns about the Philippines’ compliance with the human rights obligations related to the trade preferences scheme from which it benefits. When later the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that she would open a preliminary examination into the “drug war” killings, the administration responded by withdrawing from the Rome Statute.
In April 2018, according to Human Rights Watch, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the Philippines to put an end to the drug war and ensure accountability, and on the EU to use all available means—including suspending trade benefits if necessary—to persuade the Philippines to reverse its abusive trend.
None of that has dented appreciably the faith of the Philippine people in Duterte. But then again, it didn’t dent their faith in Marcos either for the first several years of his fraudulent presidency. That presidency was also driven by a war on crime, with the police deep into extrajudicial killings. Eventually that administration ended in tears, but not before it wrecked the country.