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Duterte’s political future hinges on Philippine pandemic rebound

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In his annual address to lawmakers on Monday, President Rodrigo R. Duterte is expected to unveil an economic recovery roadmap and address the public concerns on health and jobs.

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, President Rodrigo R. Duterte said the disease would “die a natural death.” Five months later, the pandemic is raging, the economy is facing a deep contraction, and his political future could be at stake.

While leaders around the world have struggled in their pandemic response, Mr. Duterte has a lot riding on an economic rebound. Down to his last two years in office and barred from seeking re-election, he has to maintain political capital to help his chosen candidate win in the 2022 polls. Presidents before him were sued, with some even detained after stepping down.

In his annual address to lawmakers on Monday, Mr. Duterte is expected to unveil an economic recovery roadmap, his spokesman Harry Roque said. The president would want to address the public concerns on health and jobs, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said on Sunday.

The Philippines implemented one of the earliest and longest lockdowns in the region to stem the outbreak yet it has the second-highest number of infections in Southeast Asia, with cases more than doubling from end-June.

The economy is facing its worst slump in three decades, as the lockdown shut businesses and sapped consumption. Investors are waiting for a follow-up to the 1.7 trillion-peso ($34 billion) stimulus package, to help boost financial markets. Data from the finance department included a sale of global bonds and loans in the pipeline.

“How Duterte will lead the recovery is the keystone that will build or un-build his and his successor’s political future,” said Earl Parreno, political analyst and author of Duterte’s biography. Voters could turn against his candidate in 2022 if the economy doesn’t bounce back, Mr. Parreno added.

The nation trails its neighbors in terms of pandemic policy measures, according to Asian Development Bank data.

SMALLER STIMULUS

“There’s no other problem as big as COVID right now,” and the President will discuss the pandemic in much detail in his address, Mr. Roque told CNN Philippines on July 22. Economic managers have been pushing for targeted tax incentives, a revitalized building plan, and boosting state banks’ capital to lend more to small businesses.

GREATER POWER

Whether Mr. Duterte, who has left economic matters to Cabinet officials, can implement a recovery plan remains to be seen. His pandemic response was “delayed,” and highlights his penchant to tap the police and military, even in a health crisis, according to University of the Philippines political science Professor Jean Encinas Franco.

“This is something outside the law enforcement frame that he has known throughout his political career,” Ms. Franco said. Mr. Roque said Duterte took “decisive steps” and can use the rest of his term to make Filipinos’ lives comfortable.

The Philippine leader has also managed to “centralize even greater power” in his hands amid the pandemic, with the shutdown of broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp. and the approval of the anti-terrorism law, said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at US think tank Council on Foreign Relations.

The government’s actions on critical issues such as record-high unemployment will be key in assessing the performance of Mr. Duterte, who kept his popularity in a December survey, according to Ronald Holmes, president of pollster Pulse Asia Research, Inc. The pandemic has hampered data gathering for public opinion polls.

The public may not hold Mr. Duterte accountable if they see that something is being done, Mr. Holmes said. “But if they see that the leadership contributes to their problems, it will lead to a negative opinion on his capability.” — Bloomberg





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