Why is Duterte still riding high despite recession, COVID?

The president’s term is ending but he is a potential contender for vice president despite criticism he mismanaged pandemic.

When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his final State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, a meandering and profanity-laden spiel that broke the record for a speech that clocked in at two hours and 45 minutes, he faced headwinds few of his predecessors had encountered.

Duterte acknowledged as much in his speech when he said that his “dreams and visions of a better life for all Filipinos” had run into some “unforeseen events”, referring to COVID-19 and the lockdown that stalled his plans.

As a result of the pandemic, the country’s 2020 gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 9.5 percent – the worst since 1947 and the first contraction since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

As the lockdown continues, 49 percent of the country’s 110 million people say they are facing poverty, and 4.8 million families say they are going hungry, according to the Social Weather Station (SWS) polling agency. The poverty rate had been slowly declining for years until the pandemic hit but the Asian Development Bank now estimates it will be about 20 percent in 2020 and 2021.

In April, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that unemployment had risen to 8.7 percent – roughly 4.14 million people.

But even after months of lockdown and restrictions, the country has not managed to tamp its COVID-19 numbers down.

The Philippines has had more than 1.5 million cases and at least 27,000 Filipinos have lost their lives since the pandemic started.

Now as the Delta variant threatens to trigger another more dangerous surge, Duterte has warned that it could wreck the economy and lead to “irreversible damage”.

On Monday, he seemed at a loss for answers, telling Filipinos that he would “not know what to do” if the Delta variant spread wider. He said another lockdown could be imposed and added that the country may “just have to pray for salvation.”

On the geopolitical front, China continues its numerous incursions into Philippine waters, with hundreds of what Manila calls its “maritime militia” seen swarming in the Spratly Islands in recent months. Beijing has also been expanding its artificial islands within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), raising questions about whether Duterte’s appeasing of Beijing is working out.

The president’s “drug war” has also landed him in trouble with the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Court is investigating the Duterte administration’s campaign which has allegedly killed of thousands of Filippinos but spared key drug lords from being prosecuted.

On Monday, the president, who can serve only one term under the constitution, was defiant, declaring his war on drugs far from over. He said that he had never denied that he would kill those out “to destroy” the Philippines.

Yet Duterte has continued to be hugely popular during his last 11 months. In a Pulse Asia survey on vice presidential contenders conducted this month, Duterte came out tops, while a Publicus Asia survey in July gave him an approval rating of 58 percent and a trust rating of 55 percent.

His daughter, Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao City is now contemplating a run for the presidency. If the popular politician does decide to throw her hat in the ring, Sara could then vie for the president’s post, while her father campaigns for the vice president’s position in the May 2022 election.

House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, a Duterte ally, was quoted by the state-funded Philippine News Agency as saying that he expected Duterte’s popularity ratings to climb in the coming months, which he said was “a validation of the people’s confidence and satisfaction on the Dutertes’ brand of public service”.

‘Weak opposition’

Some analysts and critics, however, attribute Duterte’s popularity to a divided opposition.

They say that despite his obvious blunders he has been able to control the national narrative by playing on the fears of the country’s citizens. There have also been accusations of the administration paying online trolls to attack opposition figures and using officials to go after his critics.

“Opposition groups have largely been weak and not yet unified, though we see more sectors becoming more vocal due to the poor government response to the pandemic and the economic downturn,” Maria Ela Atienza, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines (UP), told Al Jazeera.

Robin Michael Garcia, the president and CEO of WR Numero, a technology-driven polling and data analytics firm based in Manila, agrees.

He says that the opposition and non-aligned political figures have been unable “to articulate an equally powerful alternative narrative to ‘Dutertismo’,” – the term coined to refer to the president’s type of leadership.

“This inability is also due to their limited material resources and their inconsistent and disunited opposition. They are still splintered and you see different voices against Duterte,” said Garcia.

A family watches Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s last annual State of the Nation Address in their home in Quezon City, which is part of Metro Manila [Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

He adds that opposition figures, including Vice President Leni Robredo, have not been united and consistent in their criticism of the president. Robredo is the most prominent opposition figure in the country. She is also reportedly contemplating a presidential run but is trailing Duterte in the polls.

Other opposition voices have also emerged, including Duterte’s erstwhile allies, world-renowned boxer and Senator Manny Pacquiao, who has started to take on the president for not tackling corruption. Senate President Vicente Sotto has also questioned the president’s competence and leadership.

‘Fear factor’

Raoul Manuel, a spokesman for the youth-oriented political party Kabataan, says: “They are using state terror to force ordinary citizens to accept his leadership at a time when disinformation is prevalent,” Manuel told Al Jazeera.

“Normal citizens are threatened with lawsuits and legal actions just because they are posting something on social media. So voices that want to express dissent are being drowned out,” he said.

Given the advantage of his incumbency, Duterte is also able to muster the government machinery to highlight the plus points of his type of leadership “even if it’s already detrimental to the Filipinos”, Manuel explained in Tagalog and English.

“So, it seems that what dominates the conversation is the coverage for the incumbents – including the president and his allies.”

Atienza, the UP political science professor, notes that a July 2020 Social Weather Station mobile phone survey, showed that slightly more than half of Filipinos agreed with the statement that: “It is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.”

“Perhaps, this means that people are also afraid to say the truth even in surveys due to the prevailing culture of fear created by the administration,” she said. “In an interview of Pulse Asia’s Ronald Holmes last year, he said that fear, though difficult to measure, cannot be ruled out in survey responses.”

Hits and misses

In spite of the pandemic and ailing economy Duterte has managed to push through some significant bills since taking office in 2016, said Atienza. She credits the president for the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law in 2018 which has advanced the peace process in the Muslim region in the southern island of Mindanao.

Other main legislation includes free tuition at state colleges and universities, as well as universal health care in 2019, she added.

Dr Jaifred Christian Lopez, a medic and public health expert at the University of the Philippines, also said that the passage of the universal health care law was a “milestone” in the Duterte presidency as he had worked on the mechanisms for funding.

Beyond the issues of the bloody war on drugs and China’s encroachment on the South China Sea, Atienza says there have also been considerable failures in the Duterte presidency, including his inability to end short-term labour contracts of millions of workers as well as the unfinished rehabilitation of the southern city of Marawi.

Marawi in Mindanao was levelled to the ground by the government during its months-long operation against Muslim armed groups affiliated with the ISIL (ISIS) group in 2017. Until now, thousands of families have been unable to return to their homes and remain internally displaced.

Congressmen raise their fists and march alongside protesters along Commonwealth Avenue, ahead of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s last annual State of the Nation Address, in Quezon City, Philippines, July 26, 2021. [File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

Still, Atienza believes Duterte will also be remembered for bungling the pandemic response, which she says has relied “too much” on ex-military and police generals.

Manuel of the Kabataan party also says Duterte’s inability to manage the pandemic is his “biggest failure”.

“His pandemic response is based on militaristic solutions,” he said. “As simple as COVID testing and tracing, which should have been in order from the start of the pandemic, as well as the financial help for people under lockdown, were not even sufficient or were delayed.”

An unpredictable 2022

Analysts say that the political ground could still shift because of the uncertainty due to the economic downturn and the pandemic.

“There are still plenty of alliance-building and a lot of factors we have to consider,” UP’s Atienza said.

Due to the “weakness” of political parties in the Philippines, on display in the recent “implosion” of Duterte’s PDP-Laban party and his split with Senator Pacquiao, as well as other outside factors, “things are still unpredictable”, she explained.

Asked whether Duterte senior and Duterte junior could jointly run in 2022 and be viable, Atienza said it is “too early to say if the daughter-father tandem will materialise … though they are testing the waters.”

Duterte delivers his sixth and final State of the Nation Address (SONA), before members of the House of Representatives and senators in Metro Manila on Monday [Lisa Marie David/Reuters]

For Noel Gumalis, 45, a voter from Mindanao who supported Duterte in 2016, that prospect would be “undesirable”.

“I found his response to the pandemic to be lacking, so I will not vote for him if he ever runs for vice president. It’s time to try a new leader. Besides, you can’t just allow one family to run the country,” Gumalis, a mechanic, told Al Jazeera.

Romyelle Sy, 36, a businesswoman also from Mindanao, says she is unlikely to support either of the possible Duterte candidacies next year, saying that the government “messed up” its distribution of financial aide to needy families.

Next door, Steve Turlao, 44, works as a day labourer in construction. He supported Duterte in 2016 and will do it again in 2022, he says, despite the financial hardship he has endured over the past two years. He says he blames the pandemic, not Duterte.

Capturing the sentiment of voters wary of the pandemic and its ongoing economic effect is likely to be crucial to anyone running for president in 2022.

“The 2022 elections will mainly be about effective governance towards pandemic response,” said Garcia, the head of the WR Numero polling and analytics firm. “It is not about real change versus fake change like 2016, nor is it about good versus evil like 2010. So whoever is able to convince people about pandemic response will have a good chance.

“So far Duterte has been good at framing the narrative, but the opposition not quite.”