Baffling to many Filipinos is that despite his lack of decorum, dignity, and statesmanship, President Rodrigo Duterte remains popular. They ask why the majority of the Filipinos, including those who did not vote for him, are not bothered when his “canto boy” demeanor, vulgar language, and plebeian sartorial style are way below the dignity of the President, whose official residence is called a palace.
According to the two major public opinion pollsters, Social Weather Stations (SWS) and Pulse Asia Research, Inc., President Duterte remains popular. SWS’ 3rd Quarter survey shows that 78% of the voting population are satisfied with the President’s performance. Pulse Asia’s September poll also indicates a 78% approval rating for the President.
Baffling to many American Democrats as well is that despite his lack of decorum, dignity, and statesmanship, President Donald Trump remains popular. (His job approval rating average at 40% according to Gallup.) They ask why some Americans are not bothered when even his tweets are below the dignity of the Office of the President.
One explanation ventured is that Mr. Trump fights for America. Not only do some Americans see him fighting, they see him defeating his enemies. His tweets may seem rash and unconsidered but in reality, he is deliberate when he employs the weapon of ridicule. That puts his enemies on the defensive. They can either “go high” by fighting by the rules of civil society or go down by resorting to Mr. Trump’s unconventional ways, in which he is superior as he has long and vast experience.
Much as many Americans, both liberals and conservatives, wish to live in a time when their president could be “collegial” and “dignified” and “proper,” they think these are not those times. America is at war. Their president can be vulgar, he can be crude, and he can be undignified at times. They don’t care. They can’t spare him. They need him for he fights for America and he wins, they say.
The time when the president of the Philippines was expected to be collegial, dignified, and proper is past. We live in a different time. We are at war. On the day he was sworn in as president, President Duterte declared war against the drug lords and their cohorts, the Communists, and the separatist Muslims. Against such adversaries, not only conventions of civil society are set aside, the rule of law is dispensed with. He was elected president by the people because he emerged victorious against the same enemies and more in his fiefdom of Davao City.
Filipinos see President Duterte fighting the same enemies, this time on a nationwide scale, relentlessly and brutally. But they don’t see him winning like Americans see Mr. Trump triumphant. By his own admission, his war on drugs, which he boasted he would win in six months, has dragged on, and success is nowhere in sight. Drug lords continue to lord over the land. The Communists on the ground are inflicting heavy casualties on the President’s soldiers, allowing the Communists leaders in a faraway land to taunt him. His declaration of martial law over the whole island of Mindanao has not neutralized the Muslim separatists, so that he now talks of meeting with Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari, who lay siege to Zamboanga City in 2013, to talk peace.
What he has won, using the same unconventional and unlawful tactics he uses against drug lords, Communists, and separatist Muslims, are his battles against his personal enemies. He has placed in detention his arch critic, Senator Leila de Lima. He has ousted from the Supreme Court his frequent dissenter, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and held the Sword of Damocles over the head of his political enemy No. 1, Antonio Trillanes.
UP Sociology Professor Rand David, who is as baffled as anybody about Mr. Duterte’s enduring popularity, wrote in his Oct. 6 column in the Inquirer: “With Mr. Duterte, there is almost no reliable metric available by which we can assess the strongman’s performance, except by the brutality and contempt with which he deals with the perceived enemies of the people. It is almost as if, given the magnitude of the task before him, the people are prepared to grant him unlimited leeway, rather than admit to the grave mistake of having made him president. Total trust is what the strongman demands from those who have chosen him to lead the nation, the kind that people blindly give when, faced with complexity, they believe there is no alternative.
Brutally and contemptuously he has dealt with his personal enemies, but disappointingly he has fought the enemies of the state.
Unlike Donald Trump, who is seen by Americans as fighting for America and winning, President Duterte is not seen by Filipinos as fighting for the Philippines, which he even refers to as “my country,” sounding like he has a proprietary claim on the country. In reaction to the call for him to take stronger action to assert the Philippines’ ownership of the West Philippine Sea he has said, “We cannot afford a war. We cannot win a battle against China. I would only lose maybe thousands of my troops and policemen.” In fact, before a group of Filipino-Chinese businessmen, he told Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jinhua, “If you want, just make us a province, like Fujian.”
That is President Duterte. He may be fighting and winning his personal battles, but not only is he losing his major wars, but he has 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 Pasig River, he said, “That Pasig, you can no longer clean it because we don’t have any zoning (regulations). Over the years, the waste of factories and houses all go into the Pasig River. How can you clean that?”
He didn’t even give inspiring words to the Gilas Pilipinas team before it left for China to compete in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. He instead expressed doubts about Gilas Pilipinas’ chances in that tournament. “We will lose to Italy (first opponent). We don’t have a chance. Let’s just bet on China,” he intimated.
To the jeepney operators or owners who cannot afford the modern jeepneys, 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, 78% of Filipino voters are satisfied or approve of his performance. The two pollsters do not ask what the respondents are satisfied about or what they approve of. The respondents may just be giving answers they consider safe. As I had written here before, President Duterte has shown a disdain for criticism and opposition, as evidenced by the fates of Senators Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillanes, Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno, media organizations Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler, and journalist Maria Ressa. Survey respondents could also be afraid to say something not favorable to him and his policies.
Pollsters ask for the permission of the barangay captains to conduct interviews in the area. Interviews are conducted face-to-face. The respondent’s name and address are known to the interviewer. The interviewer’s true purpose may seem dubious to the respondent. Their answers to the question may not be reflective of their true sentiments.
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a member of Manindigan! a cause-oriented group of businessmen, professionals, and academics.