PRESIDENT Duterte’s popular support rose significantly last month, going by the metric of the Social Weather Stations’ “trust” ratings.
Undertaken from September 15-23, the SWS poll had 74 percent of Filipinos (based on its statistical sample) having much trust in Duterte, a four-percentage point rise from its June 27-30 poll finding of 70 percent. There was a four-percent of Filipinos who moved out of the “undecided” category to trust the President.
What is news here, what is significant, is that, to the Yellows’ chagrin, Duterte’s mass support even rose when prices—especially of rice—were rising. The inflation rate, or the statistical measure of how much ordinary commodities were getting more expensive, rose from 3.4 percent at the start of the year, to nearly double, to 6.4 and 6.7 percent in August and September, respectively
This gut issue of more expensive rice should have pulled down people’s trust in Duterte as their President. But it didn’t. Although there was a dip in trust ratings among those who finished college (76 percent to 74 percent), this rose among the lower classes (based on their educational attainment) that were the hardest hit by rising prices.
I would think his political support would be stable, and even increase, especially since inflation is expected to go down in the next few months. Prices of rice have already started to go down because of both importations and the start of the harvest period. Those of petroleum products will be receding because economic growth in the West and China have not been as robust as expected.
The Yellows’ unpatriotic strategy of getting Western media and even foreign entities (such the European Parliament and the New York-based Human Rights Watch) to condemn Duterte as a bloodthirsty tyrant has not swayed the support of even the thinking and upper classes. Police excesses in undertaking its anti-drug war have abated, with even much of the Yellow propaganda (such as the infamous Pieta-like photo of a drug pusher killed) proven to be fake news.
Hearts and minds
What explains Duterte’s robust political support?
For one thing, Duterte government’s infrastructure projects are being completed now. Its efficiency in governance after two years has been demonstrated.
But masses’ support of their leader rarely is a matter of rational analysis and conclusion. Approaching the mid-point of this presidency, Duterte at this point has basically captured Filipinos’ hearts and minds, with the way he has projected himself and how he has acted as a leader.
Here are some aspects of this:
First, the one thing about Duterte even his vociferous critics can’t deny is his authenticity, his what-you-see-is-what-you-get portrait, which explains why he seems to have a foul mouth. Having been a full-time journalist through five presidents, I can assert that every one of them tried to be somebody they were really not. Even President Estrada pretended to be one with the masses, even if that was really only his movie persona. The worst pretender of course was the spoiled brat Benigno Aquino 3rd. One could even feel that he was performing whenever he talked to the public. His sidekick Mar Roxas shouting “P***** ina” at a rally was a pathetic attempt to be somebody else.
Second, he does what he thinks should be done, even if is unpopular at a moment. A clear instance of this was his order to close down Boracay, which, except for a tiny stratum of environmentalists in the country, was opposed my most. With the reopening of a cleaned-up and more orderly Boracay the other day though, he’s been vindicated.
Duterte seems to enjoy shocking people in his speeches and doesn’t care if the hoity-toity elites are aghast at his curses and invectives. Because of this, he would have easily been the most unpopular president by this time.
But the people feel he’s doing what he should do—waging war against illegal drugs that was a scourge kept hidden under the rug especially by his predecessor, fighting corruption, building infrastructure, and leading the country away from its vassalage to America.
Third, he has “branded” himself in his focused-on-one particular scourge which most Filipinos, especially the lower classes, have most detested: illegal drugs.
Duterte’s current indisputable “branding” as the President who will end once and for all the plague of illegal drugs—though the heavens fall, as it were, i.e., even if Western media and global institutions condemn him for allegedly trampling on human rights.
That has been his focus, although it seems he is moving, with the war on illegal drugs half-way won—“on a scale of one to 10, we’re at six now,” he says—towards an anti-graft campaign, an issue that also dominates Filipinos’ minds. That he will demolish the illegal drug industry has been the single message the masses clearly hear, and they’re happy with it.
But in the meanwhile, his other Cabinet secretaries are doing what they are supposed to do: Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez has been undertaking a politically difficult and unpopular tax reform program, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar is implementing the “build, build, build” program while Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu cleaned up the cesspool that a once pristine Boracay had turned into.
Fourth, he has been vocal in defying and challenging the powers-that-be, which most Filipinos are keenly aware of and abhor.
The default condition of most societies, which make up the obstacle for a country’s growth, are its ruling elites that defend the status quo. Reforms would be a walk in the park, if there were no powers-that-be that block these.
Duterte has challenged not only the worst of the economic elites who have, among other crimes, evaded taxes and refused to pay rent for prime government property they have held since Marcos’ time; and their weapons—the Catholic Church and the once most-powerful Yellow media tandem, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN TV network.
And lastly, he has demonstrated to have a strong sense of empathy.
What all our past presidents have had, or pretended to have, was sympathy, which the dictionary defines as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Empathy is not sympathy; it is the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Empathy is what Duterte expresses as he embraces the widow of a Marine killed in action, or shakes the hand of a wounded in a military hospital, often with misty eyes. The pretension of sympathy is Benigno Aquino 3rd in a wake, where the camera even catches him guffawing at something that suddenly crossed his mind.
Human beings, psychologists say, have an innate capacity to sense empathy. After all, evolutionary scientists claim that this was a virtue for a tribe’s survival: its members failure to sense strangers’ deceit would have meant their extermination.
Or perhaps nations are still merely bigger versions of a family, and Filipinos especially do not see their presidents as merely chief executive officers or managers of the nation. In their hearts, they yearn for a leader who reminds them of their father or mother, who understand their feelings. Indeed, I have detected more people in social media referring to Duterte as “Tatay Digong.”
Who was the last president Filipinos really saw as “father of the nation”? No one, really.
I do hope I am right in this analysis. Because if a President can do what he needs to do even if it is unpopular or would have short-term bad effects (such as the new tax reform law, TRAIN), and still have much popular support, I am being optimistic over the future of this sad, unlucky country.