The Philippines' strongman president is losing popularity as citizens tire of drug war

Key Points
  • The Philippine president's domestic popularity fell below the 50 percent threshold in a recent survey
  • Public fatigue with the ongoing drug war and lack of economic gains are seen as key reasons
  • If approval ratings continue to slide, it could impact Manila's policy-making agenda

Sixteen months into Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's presidency, citizens are gradually turning against the controversial leader amid fatigue with a drug war that has killed thousands and distracted the administration from other reforms.

An Oct. 8 survey by the country's top pollster, Social Weather Stations, revealed the president's net satisfaction rating slid to 48 percent in the third-quarter, from 66 percent in the previous period. That was the first major decline since he took office in June last year.

A cubic effigy painted with the face of President Duterte is set on fire by activists during a rally commemorating the 45th anniversary of the declaration of martial law in Manila on Sept 21 2017.
Richard James Mendoza / NurPhoto / Getty Images

"The negative environment around the drug war and a lack of positive results in other areas are driving public frustration with the government," explained Eufracia Taylor, Asia analyst at consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. "What about employment, infrastructure, and corruption? Those things have been neglected under the framework of the drug war and we're seeing the cost of that now."

Until now, most Filipinos widely supported Duterte and his aggressive narcotics crackdown in the belief that his policies were making the country safer. Recent police figures say 3,850 have died during drug enforcement operations between July 2016 and September this year.

But human rights groups, which say the death toll is much higher, have long condemned the outspoken head-of state for sanctioning lawlessness and extrajudicial killings in his crime-fighting pursuit. Public opinion seems to be catching up following an Aug. 16 killing of a teenager that drew attention to widespread allegations of police brutality and triggered fresh protests against Duterte's administration.

Complaining about what they called rising tyranny, thousands of Filipinos rallied on Sept. 21. Doubt over presidential actions, including the imposition of martial law in the city of Marawi and the silencing of critics, underlined the movement.

"Because the president's signature programs are related to law and order, failings and missteps in these domains can reflect on his leadership," said Victor Manhit, managing director at business advisory firm Bower Group Asia.

In a Monday statement, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the ratings drop was "expected, given the fact that people start measuring their expectations usually after the honeymoon period or after a year in office." The president's trust rating remains "very good," he added.

Resurgence of the strongman leader in the Philippines?
Resurgence of the strongman leader in the Philippines?

Will the government change tactics?

Despite criticism from home and abroad, many don't anticipate Manila to soften its tactics against drugs.

"It seems unlikely," said Mark Thompson, head of the Department of Asian and International Studies as well as director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong.

Duterte seems to genuinely believe the drug war "is the key to restoring order and stamping out corruption, particularly as he claims it enabled him to clean up Davao as mayor," Thompson said, referring to the leader's former duty.

But if the president's approval ratings drop further, that could impact Manila's ability to push through ambitious reforms and may ultimately weaken the ruling coalition.

"The president's popularity is what can help him get some contentious projects or legislation accomplished ... If this slide in popularity continues, the administration may find it more challenging to rewrite the constitution or overhaul the tax system," said Manhit.

Historically, Philippine leaders tend to experience lower popularity later in their administrations.

Because Congress is sensitive to public opinion, a sustained fall in support of the government could bring about "cracks in the ruling coalition," added Taylor. "That could lead to a push to change the policy agenda."

Not concerned about Philippine economy running too hot: Official
Not concerned about Philippine economy running too hot: Official

A 'vulnerable' Duterte

It's not just a popularity slump; other developments have also shaken the president's position.

Foreign direct investment plunged 90.3 percent in the first half of 2017, according to figures released by the central bank last week. Likely a reflection of confidence, the news is worrying for one of the world's fastest-growing economies. The European Union is also currently reviewing trade dealings with Manila, with a particular eye on human rights.

Moreover, independent institutions such as the anti-corruption ombudsman's office are under siege, Duterte's opponents are becoming emboldened, and China is moving aggressively on maritime disputes, said Thompson, who noted that "this is the first time the president has looked vulnerable since taking office a little over a year ago."

Duterte still commands control over the courts and Congress, except for a few senators, but economic losses arising from his governance are expected to be taken seriously.

If the EU revokes the Philippines' status under its favorable tariff system for developing economies, that "would be a blow to the Philippines' trading position and would highlight the real consequences of the country's deteriorating human rights situation," said Taylor.