In public appearances, the foul-mouthed Filipino president flits between comedian and action hero. This endears him to voters but diverts attention from an underwhelming first three-years in office.
Three years into Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year presidency and the crass president of the Philippines is among the most popular in Filipino history. He commands an army of aptly named ‘diehard Duterte supporters’ (DDS) that pack into venues to hear him talk and prowl the social media landscape, bullying and threatening his critics.
Duterte has amassed his public following by cultivating a celebrity appeal among Filipinos that dates back to his time as mayor of Davao. His personality is the weapon he wields to accumulate political capital. Everything he does, from his derision of international governments as “sons of whores” to his aversion to suits and promotion of extra-judicial killings, is designed to foster the appearance of a relatable, man-of-the-people who is not afraid to get his hands dirty and bypass national institutions to get things done.
Duterte plays the lead in a TV show of his own making
Duterte’s brash and offensive language is unpresidential. But that is the design.
Every time he bellows profanities from the stage his cursing is met with raucous laughter from the throng in attendance. He talks like your 74-year-old neighbour in a bar, telling offensive and sexist jokes about rape and violence. But rather than erode his popularity, his public gaffes serve to rally his base around their leader.
He doesn’t want to be presidential; he wants to be the lead in the presidential television show of his own making.
His character is humorous and heroic in equal measure. One minute, he is belting out one-liners from a stage, the next he is single-handedly saving the Filipino population from ruthless drug addicts and dealers.
In this way, he can appeal to those let down by political institutions. The Filipino legal system, riddled by corruption, has lost the faith of the public. Duterte has spent three-years harnessing this anger by endorsing the extra-judicial killing of drug dealers and addicts, offering those that feel excluded from Filipino institutions the reassurance that under Duterte’s watch, justice will still be served.
Duterte has also applied this approach to other aspects of his presidency. Following the murder of a Filipina maid by her Gulf employers in Kuwait, Duterte halted labour migration to the country until better working conditions could be guaranteed. In a press conference Duterte leapt to the defence of overseas Filipino workers and angrily asked Kuwaitis, “is there something wrong with your culture?”
For Duterte and his supporters, he is the savour of Filipinos everywhere. He is the unvarnished protector that will shield Filipinos from their attackers, regardless of the legal implications.
His celebrity personality is drowning out policy
As long as he can hold the limelight and control the narrative with his personality, Duterte can keep the public on his side.
Prior to 2016, unemployment and rising food prices were the top concerns of the Filipino electorate, with crime coming in third place. However, Duterte was able to win despite showing almost no interest in economic policy and running on a tough-on-crime platform. Duterte’s persona effectively encouraged voters to look past their policy concerns and embrace Duterte the celebrity, not Duterte the politician, as their leader.
The public has also been willing to overlook Duterte’s limited progress towards his campaign pledges since entering office. Duterte’s satisfaction rating peaked in mid-2017 and reached similar heights ahead of the 2019 mid-term elections.
His fans have not been dismayed by climbing inflation rates, which reached the highest level in over nine years in 2018. Nor have they been disappointed by Duterte’s languid approach to charter change, despite making the Philippines’ transition to a federal state a key pillar of his campaign message.
Ultimately, it is those that champion Duterte’s talents the most that lose out when personality trumps policy. Rising inflation disproportionally affects the middle and lower economic classes, and the elderly.
His attempts to tackle inequality, including the expansion of the value added tax base, have sent food prices soaring by around 10%, with vegetables increasing by as much a 20%.
The lowest economic classes are bearing the brunt of his war on drugs. Poor offenders wind up dead in the streets while more wealthy defendants are arrested and turned into witnesses.
Can he finish on a high?
Duterte is the leader Filipinos want. Before Duterte took office, 60% of Filipinos said they would prefer “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.”
As long as a leader can play the part of a strongman and a saviour, they do not need to support national institutions. Duterte ticks both boxes.
There are two factors that suggest Duterte’s base will not abandon him in the second part of his presidential term. Firstly, although economic growth is projected to slow to 6.2% in 2019, it remains strong. It is also expected to rally in 2020 to 6.6%. While Duterte commands a strong economy, the public is unlikely to turn against him.
Secondly, Duterte enjoys a support cushion from Mindanao. As the first president from the island, he enjoys almost 100% approval ratings in the region. He will always be able to rely on his ability to mobilise the island’s population, giving his approval ratings an instant lift.
In his carefully crafted celebrity following, Duterte has the platform to enact meaningful change. He has accumulated vast political capital, which could make strides towards tackling inequality, corruption or the devolution of power. Instead, he wields it to crush the opposition and wage his bloody war on drugs. When the credits roll, this will be Duterte’s legacy; a gross misuse of political capital.