Teflon Duterte
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - January 29, 2020 - 12:00am

President Duterte is probably coated in Teflon. On the same day that the slowest economic growth rate in eight years was reported by government, the country fell by 14 places in the latest Corruption Perception Index (CPI) released by Transparency International.

We are now ranked among the most corrupt in the world... 113th among 180 countries, the lowest rank for the Philippines since 2011 when it placed 129th. The CPI is based on information gathered by Transparency International from experts and business people who deal regularly with government.

A friend commented on Facebook this “confirms what a contractor of DPWH said —- that ‘fees have returned to GMA levels… when asked what he meant, he said ‘40 percent... bumaba na sa 17 percent noong panahon ni PNoy pero balik 40 percent ulit ngayon’.”

The latest CPI indicates Duterte is failing miserably in his war against corruption, one of his claimed priorities. Sal Panelo says Duterte’s hands are tied by due process required by our laws. But Duterte also recycles his favorites caught in questionable situations. Duterte also refuses to set the example by making his SALN public.

Sayang because making headway in the fight against corruption will translate into a much-improved business climate and economic growth.

More bad news last week… fourth quarter 2019 Social Weather Survey found 54 percent of families consider themselves as mahirap or poor. This is 12 percentage points above the 42 percent in September 2019.

 The estimated numbers of self-rated poor families are 13.1 million for December and 10.3 million for September. The latest self-rated poverty rate is the highest since the 55 percent in September 2014.

Even Mahar Mangahas, who heads SWS, admits he is stumped to see a popularity spurt for Duterte amidst worsening poverty in two recent surveys of SWS.

Public net satisfaction with President Duterte rose significantly in the fourth quarter of 2019 to +72 (82 percent satisfied; 10 percent dissatisfied and eight percent undecided) from +65 in the third quarter (78 percent satisfied; 13 percent dissatisfied and nine percent undecided), based on the results of a survey released last week.

This is the highest level in Duterte’s term so far and of any president since former president Corazon Aquino’s +72 in October 1986. To put this in context, Aquino was still basking in the political goodwill that followed the ouster of former president Ferdinand Marcos only several months before, while Duterte is already three-and-a-half years into his term.

I consider the results of the surveys on self-poverty rating and Duterte’s approval rating credible even if seemingly defiant of logic. Both were done by the respected Social Weather Stations. While more people feeling poor doesn’t seem to jive with more people approving of Duterte’s leadership, that’s simply how people feel.

Stranger still, the increase in his popularity was across geography, income class, urban and rural areas, gender and education level. And for now, the strong public satisfaction with the administration appears set to continue through the remaining two years of his term, barring something too catastrophic to ignore.

It is also interesting to note that a past SWS survey showed an overwhelming distrust of China. But Duterte’s love affair with China isn’t denting his base of support. Just about the same number of people who distrust China say they support Duterte.

Bob Herrera-Lim of the Teneo Consulting Group feels that the numbers seem to indicate that Duterte is not going to be a lame duck for the balance of his term. That means he will be able to dictate who his successor will be and even change the Constitution to his liking.

Why? Is it Teflon Duterte, or the strength of his political narrative?

I think the people just found someone who they hope can fix things in our society. They found in Duterte someone who will fight their battles against the ruling elite.

Our people have been frustrated with the elite and the past presidents who catered to them. They are ready to forgive Duterte for everything else because at the very least he is making the Makati-based elite squirm.

Herrera-Lim thinks “Duterte’s popularity reflects the potency of the narrative that catapulted him into office in 2016 — that of the political outsider, in touch with (or belonging to) the ‘people,’ who understands their fears and aspirations, and is willing to take on politically-difficult or unpopular tasks on their behalf even if this angers entrenched elites and their networks.

“The store of political capital that this has generated trumps public reservations and controversy around his foreign policy, attitude towards human rights, lack of sophistication on policy and seeming inconsistency on many issues…

“… his seemingly impulsive behavior, which leads to frequent outbursts of questionable policy (if taken seriously), is still viewed domestically in the positive light of reflecting how he can take decisive action on public safety and security, bureaucratic delays, infrastructure, environmental cleanups, and pushing the legislature towards tax reform.”

Also working for Duterte is a divided and powerless opposition. Even the business community and NGOs don’t have a unified story on how to deal with Duterte. Media has been effectively terrorized with the ABS-CBN franchise issue sowing fear on smaller media organizations.

With such strong public backing, it is reasonable to expect Duterte to be bolder in pushing his more controversial agenda items. The numbers give him confidence opposition noise does not translate into broader public dissatisfaction.

Expect him to continue attacking the Lopezes, Ayalas and Metro Pacific and call it the fight against oligarchs. He may expand his targets to include other business interests not allied with him.

All the tough talk that made him a legendary mayor of Davao appears to be effectively working for him in building his support base in the national stage.

Of course, running a country is far more complicated than running a city. Populism can win votes, but used the wrong way can cause serious damage to the country’s economy and its international relations.

With Congress and the Judiciary ready to rubber stamp their approval of his every move, the era of the political strongman is upon us. We are living in interesting times.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco     

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