Understanding the 86%: Why is Duterte so popular at home?

Photo: Facebook of Rodrigo Duterte

While observers all around the world despair about the tough words coming from Manila, Filipinos still express strong support for the strongman President Duterte. His popularity stems from his reputation as a man of action, even if that action is the death of thousands of his own citizens.

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By Dung Phan

Rarely in history can a president draw so much attention from analysts, sociologists, scholars, activists, mainstream leaders and even Miss Earth, when he has been barely in power for a hundred days. He had been compared to Donald Trump when running the presidential campaign, and now he enjoys likening himself to Adolf Hitler. But however offensive the remarks Duterte has made are, it is hard to deny his popularity among the Filipinos.

The latest survey by the independent research group, Social Weather Stations, conducted in late September found 76% of the 1,200 respondents said they were satisfied with Duterte’s performance, while only 11% said they were dissatisfied and the remainder was undecided. In another poll conducted by Pulse Asia Research Inc., Duterte has been given a job-approval rating of 86% by 1,200 adults.

The Philippines audience appreciates the overall effect, whereas the international observers focus on the most insane comments,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a Philippine political analyst. “That’s why he remains popular, but the world is revolted by him.”

The drug war: the good, the bad and the ugly

Even though Duterte has promised to bring drastic changes, the Filipinos see the most of his domestically-popular policies – such as the crackdown on drug users and pushers. Despite international criticism of a deadly war that has killed more than 3000 people, 54% of Philippine voters were “very satisfied” with the drug war and 30% were “somewhat satisfied.” Meanwhile, 4% replied as “somewhat dissatisfied,” 4% at “very dissatisfied,” and 8% were “undecided.”

Combatting and eliminating the drug pushers and drug lords was Duterte’s core message during his presidential campaign and successfully tapped into an overwhelming yet secret fear. “It’s a very private issue and… families, friends [are expected] to be able to police each other to make sure that the war on drugs succeeds,” said Nicole Curato, a political analyst and sociology professor at the University of the Philippines. By vowing to kill three million drug addicts and being “happy to slaughter,” Filipinos can feel for the first time the drug crime has become a national issue, not just a concern between neighbours. This could explain the sky-high 91% of Filipinos who said they trusted their new president in a survey in early July.

However, many Philippines said the results overstated his popularity because they might have little courage to air their concern against his “shoot-to-kill” order. According to Father Luciano Felloni, a priest in a northern district of Manila, “there is a lot of fear because the way people have been killed is vigilante-style so anyone could become a target… There is no way of protecting yourself,” adding that opposing the drug war “in some locations becomes a dangerous job.” Another priest said it was risky to question the killings openly since anyone who criticises Duterte’s campaign could suffer a similar fate,

Even Senator Leila de Lima, the most outspoken critic of Duterte in the country, admitted she was now too afraid to spend the night alone at her house. “I sneak home occasionally to see my dogs,” adding that she has moved between the homes of friends and relatives since her address was read out during a congressional hearing. “Duterte wants to make an example of me so that nobody will speak out and oppose him.”

But again, it should be noted that for most Filipinos, even those ambivalent to his presidency, previous governments did not deal with the nation’s narcotics problem. “I know it’s not right,” said one Filipina, referring to the deaths of innocents as necessary “sacrifices”. “But we have to do something. And we have to be tough.”

This ambivalence sits well with a population that is exhausted and frustrated by successive elites that promised much but simply ensured they got rich instead. By comparison, Duterte is a man of action, offering them what they need most; something visible, measurable and tangible even if that is the death of more than 3000 people.

For many times during his speech, he reiterated that he only was fighting for Filipinos. And according to Curato, this is how Duterte nationalises his drug campaign. “When they [USA] attacked Iraq [and] Afghanistan; there are ways in which people are silenced when they critique it. They say it’s unpatriotic, it’s disrespectful to the troops,” Curato explained, saying the situation was similar. “You have your police officers putting their lives on the line and then you start critiquing them? You don’t do that.”

High expectations

However, unlike the majority of Filipinos, former President Fidel Ramos says the administration under Duterte “is losing badly” by prioritising the drug war at the expense of issues like poverty, governance and terrorism. This is a huge disappointment and let-down to many of us,” Ramos wrote in the Manila Bulletin, stressing that Duterte is “stuck in unending controversies about extrajudicial killings of drug suspects” and his tendency to “using cuss-words and insults instead of civilised language.”

The survey comes at a time when many Filipinos have started to show their concern over Duterte’s foreign policies. By shifting to “a more independent policy,” he has decided to get rid of the alliance with the United States and move closer to China. However, nothing will be assured when it comes to the Philippines’ place in the international discourse. The high rate of trust and approval for Duterte’s presidency should be a reminder of the high expectation for a more predictable and stable nation.