“We need to understand why many are attracted to President Duterte and to politicians like him.” That is what Vice-President Leni Robredo said in her radio talk show the day after 1Sambayan announced she was one of those the political coalition is considering nominating for president in the general elections in 2022. She implies that to win in 2022, candidates need to know what makes people attracted to Mr. Duterte.

I assume the basis of her saying that many are attracted to the President is his high rating in public opinion polls. In Social Weather Stations’ (SWS) nationwide surveys, President Duterte’s satisfaction rating has been in the 70s. However, she probably finds it hard to reconcile the high satisfaction rating of the President with the various issues surrounding the administration that should be damaging to President Duterte’s political standing.

After all, the President himself admitted that he had failed to fulfill his campaign promises of eliminating the illegal drug trade, eradicating corruption in his administration, and controlling criminality. He had also become defeatist when faced with the challenges to his administration. Fed up with the unsuccessful attempts to solve the traffic gridlock on EDSA, he blurted, “Let EDSA rot.” About the Pasig River, he said, “That Pasig, you can no longer clean it.” Most alienating was his message to jeepney operators or owners. The President angrily told them: “If you can’t modernize that, leave. You’re poor? Son of a bitch, go ahead, suffer in poverty and hunger, I don’t care.”

Yet, the President, in the words of Vice-President Robredo, remains attractive to many people. No, the people do not turn a blind eye to those human rights abuses, they just don’t set their eyes on those extra judicial killings, just as they don’t set their eyes on other issues that impact on their daily lives.

The respondents in surveys are asked to give their opinion on the performance of the President. The usual wording of the question asked in surveys about the President’s performance is as follows:

“Please tell me how satisfied or dissatisfied you are with the performance of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines. Are you very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, undecided if satisfied or dissatisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, very dissatisfied, or you have not ever heard or read anything about Rodrigo Duterte?”

We cannot tell what those who find the President’s performance satisfactory base their assessment on as they are not asked why they are satisfied with President Duterte’s performance. Each respondent interprets the question from his own viewpoint. One respondent’s understanding of the word “performance” may be different from another respondent’s understanding of the same word, and much more so from that of political commentators.

SWS draws its sample from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) population figures. According to the PSA, the Philippine population breaks down into 1% AB, 9% C, 60% D, and 30% E socio-economic classes. If the sample of 1,500 respondents is representative of the voting population, as it should be, then only 15 respondents come from the socio-economic class AB and 135 come from Class C. The bulk of the interviews therefore is conducted among the lower socio-economic classes — 900 from among those belonging to the socio-economic class D and 450 to class E.

I wonder, therefore, if the great majority of the respondents know what the responsibilities of the president are. So, when adult Filipinos are asked if they are satisfied or dissatisfied with the performance of the President, their frame of reference could be the performance of something unrelated to governance, like his long speeches spiced with racy adlibs or his expletive-laden tirades against his detractors and Catholic Church dignitaries. Respondents could also be referring to the President’s abandonment of the formalities, traditions, and protocol long established in Malacañang in favor of the ways of the common tao.

To extract more accurate information about the people’s opinion of the performance of the President, a number of questions should be asked of respondents of public opinion polls. In addition to the first question on the degree of satisfaction about the president’s performance, the following open questions (not multiple choice) should be asked:

1. What makes you feel the way you do about the president’s performance?

2. Can you cite the act of the president you are most satisfied with?

Perhaps looking back at the 2016 campaign period may also provide some understanding of the initial attractiveness of politicians and their eventual fallout. In 2016, presidential candidate Jojo Binay projected himself as the person who could raise the people from the depths of poverty. “Life will improve with Binay” said his slogan, citing his governance of the financial capital of the Philippines as basis of that claim.

The slogan seemed to have worked for he topped the polls for a long time until his political enemies twisted the slogan into something like “Life improved for the Binays when they ruled over Makati.” His campaign staff changed the slogan to “competence and experience.” Senator Grace Poe asked rhetorically “Experience and competence in anomalous transactions?”

While having had only modest accomplishments as a senator, Ms. Poe topped the polls on presidential candidates as she projected herself as the one to carry on what FPJ (her father, actor and presidential candidate Fernando Poe, Jr.) had started. When stumped by the question of what FPJ had started, she adopted the slogan “Walang iwanan (We don’t leave anyone behind).” But her detractors countered by accusing her of having turned her back on her countrymen when she migrated to the United States and renounced her Filipino citizenship so she could get a job.

Mar Roxas’ campaign staff created for him the image of “PNoy’s anointed” and the “Toll patrol of the Straight Path.” His rivals for the presidency did not bother demolishing or distorting that image as it never catapulted him to the top spot in the polls anyway.

When Mr. Duterte joined the presidential race, his persona of the “Fearless crimebuster,” a Filipino and a real-life version of the Hollywood movie character Dirty Harry (from which DU30 was derived) placed him at the top of the polls. His opponents tried to put him down as only a mayor of a city at the southern tip of the country and therefore not knowledgeable of issues of national and international implications. That putdown only made him attractive to people who had been wanting to rid the top echelons of government of traditional politicians.

I chose the word “persona” over “personality” because “persona” is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “the type of character that a person seems to have that is often different from his real character.” When President Duterte backed out of his own challenge for a debate with retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, his detractors flooded social media with his image above which was the word in bold capital letters “Duwag (Coward).”

The label “Coward” must have disturbed President Duterte immensely as his underlings took on a massive effort to justify his withdrawal from the debate. The excuse that it was below the dignity of President Duterte to debate with a private citizen, though a Supreme Court justice he may have been, did not wash. It was the President himself who challenged Mr. Carpio to a debate. President Duterte’s retreat totally destroyed his “Fearless” persona and proved his “macho” image a myth.


Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.