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Historic president, historic times

LOVE him or hate him, the opinion polls, especially the most recent one by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), inarguably show that President Rodrigo Duterte is now the most popular president ever in our Republic’s history.

This conclusion was prodded by the December 2019 SWS poll, which found that 82 percent of Filipinos are satisfied with his performance, the highest ever rating for any president in the post-EDSA period.

His rating has risen from the 76 percent in the first SWS poll during his presidency in September 2016.

Of course we don’t have similar data about the popular support for pre-EDSA presidents, but it is safe to say that all these presidents — even the CIA-backed Ramon Magsaysay, whom the elites disdained — couldn’t have had such a phenomenal 82-percent satisfaction. I suspect though that support for the strongman Marcos in 1976, four years after he imposed martial law when the economy surged at an average of 7 percent, approached that of Duterte now.

Add the 10 percent “undecided” on his performance — which means they’ll likely go with the majority when push comes to shove — Duterte has the backing of 92 percent of the nation. This is nothing short of phenomenal.

One way of putting Duterte’s 82-percent satisfaction rating in context is to compare this to the SWS net satisfaction ratings of all presidents since Cory Aquino at similar periods of their presidency, at their midterm. (Net satisfaction is percent of those satisfied minus dissatisfied. However, this psychologically underestimates popular support. For instance, while 82 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with his performance, 10 percent were not, so his net rating is 72 percent. This, however, could be easily mistaken that only 72 percent are satisfied with him.)

Three years and three months into her presidency, in April 1990, Cory’s net satisfaction rating was just 37 percent, plunging six months later in November 1990 to just 7 percent. Her son Benigno 3rd was more popular, with 49 percent net satisfaction in December 2013. Ramos’ was at 2 percent in December 1995.

Another way of putting Duterte’s rating in context is to compare it to those of leaders of other countries. US President Trump had an approval rating (conceptually only a bit different from the SWS “satisfaction” rating) of 40 percent at his midterm. The two most popular US presidents in the post-war era, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, both had only 61 percent approval at midterm.

While strictly not precisely comparable, Duterte’s satisfaction ratings are way above those of leaders of other major countries: Europe’s most popular politician, Germany’s Angela Merkel, has an approval rating of 48 percent; Japan’s Shinzo Abe has 52 percent; France’s Emmanuel Macron 40 percent.

What all this means is that Duterte’s presidency is historic, in that we are in moment in our history when a huge 82 percent of Filipinos are united behind the nation’s elected leader. That means that we are in historic times, as such unity has been so rare, if it ever there was ever one.

Western media has portrayed the 1986 EDSA uprising as our moment of history when we were united as a nation. However, the coup attempts that started just a year later to culminate in the 1989 putsch that nearly toppled Cory’s presidency proved that that People Power Revolution was a chimera. Huge sectors of the country that were against the uprising — the Ilocano north, Imelda Marcos’ eastern Visayas, the military and perhaps half of Mindanao — weren’t just given the venues to express their protest against EDSA.

What does such unity and support for a President mean?

First, it means that Duterte has the mandate to undertake even the most radical reforms the country needs. Indeed, his moves against “oligarchs” reflect his courage — and assessment that he has the nation’s backing — to go against sectors of the economy that have the resources, such as media, to even topple him violently.

From the Social Weather Stations press release.
Source: Social Weather Stations press release

Second, it means that, even as they get hoarse protesting, Duterte can undertake his reforms, even those that Congress, the judicial system, media and the elites don’t like.

The way is now open for abolishing a bilateral Congress and replacing it with the historically and globally proven more efficient single-chamber parliament. This is the first time that this can be done since this idea was broached. Indeed, how could any president without Duterte’s popular support ask the House of Representatives, who mostly control the voting population, commit political suicide?

And third, with such phenomenal popular support at his mid-term, when those of all past presidents steeply fell in a similar period of their presidencies, it will be Duterte who will determine his successor. Except for that continuity Marcos had when he ruled for two terms (and another extra-constitutional term that was martial law) and that of Fidel Ramos who was anointed by Cory, the nation’s leadership has been characterized by so much discontinuity, with one president disregarding the thrust of his predecessor.

Despite their obvious faults, the Marcos and Ramos regimes had proven that continuity is so important for a nation’s stability, and, therefore, economic growth.

The downside for Duterte though, he will not have any excuse if he fails to undertake a major reform of our country.

We seldom realize we are living in historic times, and political scientists of the future, especially those in the West, will be wracking their brains figuring out how Duterte, a few years ago just a mayor in some city in the south, whose rule has been painted as a “presidency bathed in blood” by American journalists could have led the Philippine breakthrough as nation and as an economy.



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