A cult of personality: Duterte’s popularity remains high despite disagreements on foreign policy

Photo: Facebook of Rodrigo Duterte

Many Filipinos depart from President Duterte over foreign policy, but his popularity shows no signs of waning.

By Zachary Frye

Nearly four years into his term, President Rodrigo Duterte remains extremely popular at home.

According to a recent national poll, 72% of Filipinos gave him an ‘excellent’ rating, up seven points from the previous quarter’s survey and beating out his previous record of 68% approval achieved in June 2019.

The boost in ratings comes amid a resurgent public campaign against the “injustice” of big business, adding to a populist persona that endears him to millions of Filipinos.

Graph depicting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's Net Satisfaction ratings

Despite the high ratings, many Filipinos disagree with his diplomatic embrace of China at the expense of the United States, a traditional ally.

In a newly released study published by the Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singaporean think-tank dedicated to Southeast Asian affairs, over 82% of Filipino respondents think the country should side with the US if forced to align with a major power.

Likewise, when asked who is most suited to maintain the international rules-based order and uphold international law, the US came out on top with 35%. Only 0.7% of respondents chose China.

Meanwhile, Duterte continues to scale-down the country’s bilateral ties to Washington. In late January, he announced the government would start terminating the two countries’ Visiting Forces Agreement, a pact which allows US forces to advise and train the Filipino military.

He cited that relations with Washington have become “lukewarm.”

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is accompanied by his partner Honeylet as they join the group photo with People's Republic of China President Xi Jin Ping and other heads of state in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation prior to the start of the welcome dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 14, 2017. (PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO)
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is accompanied by his partner Honeylet as they join the group photo with People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping and other heads of state at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, March 14, 2017.
Photo: Philippine News Agency

While the discrepancy between policy and public attitudes isn’t significantly impacting Duterte’s domestic popularity, increased Chinese aggression could change that.

Foreign policy often isn’t a major concern

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Gregory Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), argues that despite Duterte’s unpopular pivot towards China, foreign policy often takes a backseat to domestic issues in the eyes of the electorate.

Putting domestic policy above foreign policy “is not a uniquely Filipino attribute.”

“Every electorate [does that] until there is a serious crisis that threatens the lives or livelihoods of the people,” he added.

Despite the disagreements, for many Filipino voters, Duterte’s unconventional style is refreshing. Perhaps most importantly, he has successfully built a reputation as a fighter for the people.

“Duterte spoke in a very familiar way, with his cursing, his funny stories, his jokes, even his flirting with women. These all came across as very authentic, very human, not manufactured,” said Pia Ranada Robles, a journalist who covered Duterte’s 2016 campaign.

China’s embrace is still potentially dangerous for Duterte

Regardless, Duterte may be playing with fire. Filipino’s haven’t yet considered his administration’s advances towards China a deciding factor in their continued support. But that could change in the future.

According to Mr Poling, critics of Duterte’s foreign policy could gain traction if his domestic policies start losing popularity.

Xi Jinping and President Rodrigo Duterte.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“If Duterte’s domestic policies start to become unpopular due to, for instance, an economic downturn or serious corruption scandals connected to China, then his meek foreign policy will add to that reversal in fortunes. That is what happened to [former President] Arroyo.”

Arroyo, president of the Philippines from 2001 to 2010, suffered a massive loss of confidence after a corruption scandal involving a Chinese telecommunications firm emerged in 2007. 

Furthermore, the threat of Beijing increasing its aggression in the South China Sea remains a distinct possibility.

“If China goes too far and its bullying results in the death of Filipinos, [which] could have very easily happened last June with the sinking of the Gem-Ver, and it is all but certain to happen eventually given China’s hyperaggressive use of its coast guard and paramilitaries around Thitu (Pag-asa) and Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal,” Mr Poling suggested foreign policy issues could become more important to the public.

Duterte downplayed the sinking of the Gem-Ver fishing vessel as a “little” maritime incident “because there was no confrontation.”

Directly addressing the 22 Filipino fishermen who were stranded in open waters after their boat sank, Duterte told them, “Well, I’m sorry. That’s how it is.”

As a part of Philippine national waters, Manila has exclusive rights to fish in the area the boat was sunk.

Duterte should tread carefully

Although many Filipinos disagree with President Duterte’s embrace of Beijing at the expense of Washington, for now, most remain unwilling to make it a big issue.

However, Duterte’s political outsider persona, dedicated to the protection of the everyday Filipino, doesn’t fit with an approach to foreign policy that is willing to overlook Chinese aggression in national waters, even when it results in the near-death of 22 fishermen.

Duterte is betting heavily on the assertion that a strong relationship with Beijing will remain beneficial to the national economy. But the political risks of abdicating the nation’s security interests are real. If he’s not careful, he could find himself on the losing end of the Sino-Philippine relationship.