MANILA -- The Philippines is struggling to stamp out Southeast Asia's worst coronavirus outbreak, millions of its people are unemployed, and officials of the medical insurer are fighting multi-billion peso corruptions claims. And yet, 9 in 10 Filipinos approved President Rodrigo Duterte's performance in a recent opinion poll.
Pulse Asia itself, which conducted the survey released Monday, found it "shocking" and "unbelievable" that 91 percent of respondents approved of Duterte, said the pollster's president, Ronald Holmes.
"The data we released is shocking, it is unbelievable. Even us could not in any way believe what we gathered, except that we could not in any way withhold such information because we’ve been releasing this information [on presidential performance and trust ratings] for the past 21 years," he said in a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).
So, how then did Duterte's ratings rise to 91 percent from 87 percent in December last year, at the same time that unemployment and hunger figures spiked?
For political analyst Richard Heydarian, one factor could be the people's need for a "father figure" in times of national anxiety.
"As Littlefinger said in Game of Thrones, chaos is a ladder. Chaos is a ladder also for a populist," he said in the same forum. "Whenever there is anxiety, they can show themselves as a savior, and President Duterte has done a good job of showing himself as a padre de familia (head of the family) that people can rely on."
The administration distributed a "record-breaking" P200-billion cash aid for the poorest Filipinos during the health crisis, on top of assistance under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program and the small business subsidy program, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Tuesday.
"Napakalaki talagang halaga na galing sa kaban ng bayan ang ibinigay natin sa ating mga kababayan sa panahon ng pandemya. Ang Pilipino, napakagaling po iyang tumanaw ng utang na loob," he told TeleRadyo.
Aside from cash aid, the government also deferred loans and the Philippine coronavirus testing turnout is among the Asian region's highest, said Heydarian.
"People are seeing the government doing something," he said.
Of the 1,200 people polled by Pulse Asia, 8 percent were from the most affluent classes ABC, 14 percent were from the poorest class E and the rest were from Class D or the “masa,” said Holmes.
WHAT'S DIFFERENT NOW?
Duterte's trust and approval ratings slipped to their lowest in September 2018, when the prices of commodities soared, especially hurting the poor. This shows that "the economy does affect" Duterte, said Southeast Asia analyst Bob Herrera-Lim.
"The difference right now is there is this broad fear that this is a pandemic... ‘Yes, I don’t have a job, yes we’ve had to depend on government handouts’—all these things are all the negatives that in any other situation might have knocked his numbers this down," he said in the same FOCAP forum.
"But I think just the overwhelming fear of the pandemic caused people to think, ‘Okay, I will overweigh my survival versus all of these variables, which in other times would have mattered,’” said Herrera-Lim, who is also a managing director at the New York-based consultancy firm Teneo.
Like the Philippines, other countries entered a recession too, which "adjusted people’s expectations," added Heydarian.
WHAT ABOUT PHILHEALTH?
Around the time the survey was conducted, then PhilHealth chief Ricardo Morales resigned and a task force that recommended charges against him and other PhilHealth officials after whistleblowers accused them of pocketing P15 billion, and approving overpriced projects and fund release to hospitals.
Presidents are "not directly held accountable for the failures of bureaucratic agencies," said Holmes, who has a doctorate in political and strategic studies.
"Although there are people below him who might be charged with corruption, if the President is not seen as corrupt, then that expectation is met," he said.
But while the President is not held accountable for agencies' missteps, he may "get credit" from the efforts of local government efforts, said Holmes.
"For many Filipinos, government is really an abstraction… If you get the ayuda (aid), you don’t anymore even ask anymore whether it’s from the local or national government. Just getting the assistance is already sufficient and that in a way may also affect the rating of a national official," said Holmes.
"While the President or national official is not held accountable, what’s paradoxical is the President or national official may get credit from the things he or she has not done," he said.
Duterte is also "a master of the art performative governance," said Heydarian.
"He’s extremely good in projecting this image of someone who is in charge—so in charge that he can be openly and transparently emotional about his anxieties of leadership, his willingness to help the country, and at the same time, be humorous in joking about it," he said.
The climate of fear, he added, cannot be taken out as a potential factor in explaining Duterte's scores. Many respondents are from working-class communities that may have seen killings linked to Duterter's anti-narcotics drive.
Heydarian questioned how a respondent could be "completely honest about how much they like or dislike the President when just a few months ago or the other day, some neighbor was shot down or was a victim of extra-judicial killing."
Holmes said he would "not deny that that climate exists."
"The problem for us is how do we measure what proportion of the responses are expressed because of apprehension or fear," he said.
WHAT SHOULD PEOPLE DO?
"It’s up to every one of us to think of ways in terms of why it is that people perceive the President this way, what does this mean for our political system—whether this will deter a movement toward autocracy and what are the steps we should take to engender more participation," Holmes said.
Herrera-Lim, meanwhile, urged the public to remember that many Filipinos do not have unlimited access to the internet and that online trolls may affect their worldview.
"You have to take yourself out from where you are and bring yourself to where they are,” he said.
The Philippines must also "look at the root of the problem" and strengthen government institutions to fight populism, said Heydarian.
"When institutions of governance are not working, people are desperate for a secular savior and that’s where populists come in. It just happens that Duterte is the latest iteration," he said. "That’s where capacity-building, institution-building should come in."