(First published on October 13) The sharp decline in public satisfaction with and trust in President Rodrigo Duterte may reflect the end of his “honeymoon period,” as the general public begins to critically reexamine their expectations for this administration and juxtapose them with its actual performance. Based on the third quarter survey of Social Weather Stations (SWS), 67 percent of adult Filipinos were satisfied with the president’s performance, while 14 percent were undecided and 19 percent were dissatisfied. This leads to Duterte gaining a net rating (satisfied minus dissatisfied) rating of +48, a whopping 18-point drop from his +66 rating during the second quarter. The same survey indicates that 73 percent of Filipinos continue to trust Duterte, while 15 percent remain undecided and 12 percent give him little trust. This gives him a net trust rating of +60 (very good), down from +75 in June.
The release of the survey results was exceptionally timely, as the Stratbase ADR Institute had organized a roundtable discussion on Tuesday that aimed to flesh out the successes and shortfalls of Duterte’s first year in office. Featuring Richard Javad Heydarian, non-resident fellow and author of the Special Study titled “Duterte’s First Year in Office: Assessing the Balance Sheet,” the roundtable provided critical avenue for select leaders in the political-diplomatic field, business community, and civil society to exchange ideas and insights as to why Duterte’s satisfaction and trust ratings suddenly plunged, and what the Duterte administration can do in order to reverse the downward trend and win back public support for its security, governance and development agendas.
Major policy ruptures and political risk
During his presentation, Heydarian cited major ruptures in policy and causes of political risk which, in varying degrees, could have had detrimental impact on Duterte’s satisfaction and trust ratings. The most controversial of which is the War on Drugs, which has not only experienced growing criticism at home but has also raised alarm within the greater international community. Based on the latest report of the Philippine National Police on the anti-illegal drugs campaign, there were already 6,225 drug-related deaths between July 1, 2016 and Sept. 16, 2017. Of these, 3,850 individuals died in police operations, 2,290 individuals died due to drug-related deaths and 85 government personnel (82 policemen, 3 soldiers) were killed in action.
According to Heydarian, the problem with the war on drugs is that it has been inextricably linked with the erosion of basic human rights and civil liberties, owing to the increase in extrajudicial killings and lack of accountability of law enforcement agencies and other unknown perpetrators of criminal violence. This prompted legislators from the United States and European Union, as well as legal luminaries of the International Criminal Court, to voice out their concern over the ballooning casualties which, if left unaddressed, may incur reputational and economic costs for the Philippines through expulsion from the United Nations Human Rights Council and imposition of economic sanctions, respectively.
Aside from the war on drugs, Heydarian identified “debt trap” Dutertenomics and fiscal or tax reforms as two other major causes of political risk that need judicious evaluation and effective implementation. Citing the Pulse Asia survey dated March 2017, Heydarian recounted that the three most urgent national concerns are economic in nature: improving/increasing the pay of workers (43 percent), controlling inflation (41 percent), and creating more jobs (39 percent). While Duterte deserves credit for his determination to advance his two signature initiatives, Build, Build, Build, Infrastructure Project and the tax reform, in order to level the economic playing field, improve the domestic investment climate, and render economic growth more inclusive, concerns over the sustainability of projects, the progressive leftist-technocratic divide within his Cabinet, and policy predictability, among others remain. In addition, overreliance on Official Development Assistance (ODA) with high interest rates from prospective donor countries such as China may lead to another wave of ballooning of the country’s foreign debt.
Opportunities for positive change
On the brighter side, Heydarian noted that the Philippine government has also made progress on some national issues. First, Duterte ought to be credited for pushing for a more inclusive and comprehensive peace negotiations with the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, as well as keeping Malacañang’s gates open for the members of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front.
Should Duterte succeed in brokering enduring peace agreements both with the Moro and Communist insurgents, the Philippine defense and security establishment will be able to stave off the advance of Islamic State in Mindanao, facilitate agrarian reform and rural development in Communist-infested areas, and devote much of its energy on external defense, especially in light of China’s growing assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea. Second, Duterte’s unwavering support for the anti-trust regulation and the passage of key constitutional amendments, such as the relaxation of restrictions on foreign investments, would contribute to creating a more stable policy environment which, in turn, would usher the democratization of the domestic economy and improvement of the country’s business and investment climate.
Echoing Heydarian, it is imperative for Duterte to focus less on exacting political vendetta and focus more on state-building. In other words, he ought to address the issues closest to the gut of ordinary Juan, namely: preservation of law and order, generation of economic opportunities and strengthening of local institutions of governance.