Will Rodrigo Duterte finish his term?

Photo: Facebook of Rodrigo Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is not even a year into his presidency, but his critics want him out. They can try, but they will fail.


President Duterte stands strong in the face of his opposition. In the face of drugs. In the face of whichever issue he feels strongly about on any given day. And his approach works, the often-quoted poll by Pulse Asia shows he enjoys an outstanding 86% approval rating among Filipinos, suggesting significant domestic support for his brash ways, big statements and direct approach to politics. Duterte is currently trusted marginally more than any of even his most famous predecessors in their first year of being president.

Behind this success are a number of factors playing in his favour. Duterte enjoys a supermajority in the legislature, and his public popularity serves as a major hindrance to any brave politician considering calling for Duterte to be impeached. It is a natural truth that politicians will not risk their political careers trying to unseat a well-liked president. Those that do dare to speak against him, such as Senator De Lima, brave waves of insults from Duterte and his team; leaving themselves isolated and persecuted.

His popularity has not waned despite unpopular decisions

One of his most controversial decisions at home has been his support for giving former dictator and plunderer president Ferdinand Marcos a hero’s burial in November 2016. He defended his decision on the basis that Marcos was a Medal of Valour awardee and by law is allowed to be buried in the Heroes’ Cemetery. For many, this was a betrayal.

At the same time, his pivot to China was also not well-received as Filipinos have little trust of China‘s ways. However, he knew that improving economic relations with their larger neighbour will help him fund vital infrastructure projects, particularly transport facilities such as airports, railways, and bridges. And although these moves happened against the backdrop of the Philippines’ win in the infamous territorial dispute between the two in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), Duterte chose to have bilateral talks with China instead of insisting on the ruling. He gambles that controlling the waters is not a primary concern of Filipinos. So far, his luck is in.

Fuelling the national conversation on many of these issues are Duterte’s social media trolls who, whether paid or not, are a force to be reckoned with. They downplay the negatives of his more difficult moves and spin them in a positive manner through virally-shared memes and blogs.

The influence of the Catholic Church has fallen, boding well for the President

Meanwhile, it is clear that the influence of the Catholic Church has waned and Duterte is benefitting. According to Manuel Victor Sapitula, a sociology professor at the University of the Philippines, the response to Duterte’s war on drugs lacks the, “forcefulness that characterised the involvement of the Catholic Church in social issues in the past.”

For example, the Church was recently unable to stop the Reproductive Health Bill from being passed – a huge shift from how things once were. President Estrada was overthrown by people power, pushed through the clergy, and it also played a prominent role in toppling the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.

This leaves a delicate balance where the majority of the people who voted for Duterte are Catholics, and the Church risks further alienating these worshippers if they go on an offensive against the widely-adored leader. It seems clear, therefore, that Filipinos are seeking a clear separation between the government and the church. This is new, and partly of Duterte’s own making.

The economic boom makes people mind their own business

We should also remember that unseating a president during good economic times is difficult. According to HSBC, Duterte’s Philippines will continue its strong economic run in 2017, seeing a surge of investments and development loans from Japan and China which will fund Duterte’s investment programme. The government hopes this will usher in a golden age of infrastructure, growth and positivity for the future.

This optimistic view on the economy should ensure that Duterte will remain popular with Filipinos benefitting from an economic improvement. This is despite wobbles in massive foreign portfolio investments which were flowing out of the country in response to Duterte’s bold statements in the latter part of 2016. Raphael Mok, Asia analyst at BMI research, explains, “The current 7% growth pace will be a high bar to keep, but we believe that the Philippines growth momentum can largely be sustained at the 6-7% range.”

However, while economic growth might be sustainable, inclusive growth is a different question. Poverty remains high, and job creation remains weak. If economic growth does not translate into jobs and better standards of living, the President may soon have to face a new clamour for change.

The morale of the Army and Police are high and will prevent a coup d’etat

Also important to this picture are the moves Duterte has made to ensure that the army and police are well taken care of. He regularly visits military camps, takes care of injured soldiers and vows to protect his policemen if they get into legal trouble following his commands.

The problem here is where to draw the line. This delicate promise empowers the police to act with impunity, eroding trust in its law enforcers. Once people start to see the police as the enemy, the narrative on drugs shifts from eliminating criminality into mass murder.

A weak opposition stands no chance of getting Duterte impeached

The other issue is, if not Duterte, then who? The opposition, led by Vice President Leni Robredo is feeble and has no chance of diffusing the political clout of Duterte. She says she will continue her campaigning regardless, “I will continue to oppose things that I do not believe in. If being an opposition leader entails that, then I will become one.”

But despite her courage in speaking out, she cannot lead minority lawmakers against Duterte’s supermajority in the political arena. Furthermore, her expulsion from Duterte’s cabinet has lessened her political clout, leaving her with little more than the limited budget set for the Vice Presidency. She may be (relatively) squeaky-clean. She may be in a top post. She is not a credible threat.

Only an (unlikely) military attack overseas can end Duterte’s term

So could an external political factor topple Duterte? Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III is reported as saying, “Duterte will finish his term. Only a superior attacking foreign military force can stop him from completing his term, God willing.” This half-joke was in response to suggestions of a plot led by former American Ambassador Philip Goldberg to oust Duterte within a year and a half. Although backroom plots make good stories, it is very unlikely America – or anyone else – will resort to this given that US-Philippines relations are expected to improve under a Trump presidency.

Instead, it may be a threat of his own making that brings Duterte down. He has stated that one of his priorities is to switch to a federalist model of government because he believes it will lead to sustainable peace in Mindanao. But it would not be him that leads the process, but the Senate committee on constitutional amendments and revision of codes.

This group is led by Liberal Party (LP) stalwart senators including Senator Francis Pangilinan, acting president of the opposition group and Leila de Lima – Duterte’s most outspoken critic. This makes the passage of this proposal likely to be very laborious as arguments bounce forward and back and political points are scored.

His challenge is that federalism is not well understood in the country. For it to gain widespread support, the Duterte administration (and his trolls) need to put more effort to explain the merits of the proposed system. If he cannot do this articulately, and quickly, he may find himself in a difficult position.

Duterte himself calls this policy a watershed, claiming he will spark an election as soon as he signs the final version of the federalism bill. He says, “If by 2018 it is done, I give you my word; I will step down as president.” However, it is hard to put so much trust into his words as he has reneged on a previous promise to resign if he could not stop the drug problem within three to six months of his presidency. Close to a year later that particular battle is very much ongoing; and he remains very much in office.

Poor health is the most likely reason he may step down

At 71 years old, Duterte has some health issues. According to him, “Oust me – good; assassinate me – better; I have this migraine every day,” adding, “I have many issues with my spine. What I have is Buerger’s disease. It is an acquired thing that you get from smoking, because of nicotine.” On closer research this condition affects blood flow and blood clots; at its worst, it may require amputation of a limb.

Despite this Duterte appears to be in rude health in many other ways, blasting his critics or making his way to the different military camps around the country. He has yet to be stopped in his tracks.

The future looks stable, but things can change quickly

Taking into account all of these issues and mitigating factors, it is likely that Duterte will continue to have a stable presidency in the short term but face more resistance in the coming year. The death penalty issue looms on the horizon and will trigger serious dissent from the Catholic Church. Also, the distribution of condoms in public schools and the bill that seeks to allow children to be criminally liable by age nine are likely to give the already-ill leader a headache

However, he is a seasoned politician, and people should understand that if this was a game of chess, Duterte is the queen; moving in any direction at any time and taking out those in his firing line with little remorse. Looking at just a small number of recent headlines he is bashing the Catholic Church while diverting attention from his mandate for extrajudicial killings by reopening the investigation of the controversial Mamasapano operation.

He responds to organisers of his ouster, “I wish them all the success,” but in the end, they may need to do nothing. He may well do all the hard work himself.