“President Duterte’s Ordinary Challenge” by Malcolm Cook

2017/59, 10 October 2017

Much of the analysis of the Duterte presidency has focussed on what makes it extraordinary:

Duterte benefitted from what appeared to be extraordinarily high approval and trust ratings across all geographical and demographic sub-groups. In his first year in the presidential palace, Duterte had net satisfaction ratings averaging +64% and even higher net trust ratings according to quarterly Social Weather Stations’ polling.

Duterte came to power with a uniquely wide and diverse coalition of support spanning the militant left, Mindanao’s main insurgency groups and Christian settler community, the wealthy classes and the Marcos dynasty. President Duterte has also ruled with seemingly pliant super-majorities in both houses of Congress.

President Duterte has attacked a large array of leading politicians, government institutions and major social institutions deemed unsupportive of his political agenda, particularly his deathly war on drugs. Targets include leading media companies, the Catholic Church, the Commission on Human Rights, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman, the Vice-President, and the Liberal Party.

Recent signs for each of these counts suggest that President Duterte is starting to face the ordinary pressures post-Marcos presidents have faced:

The Social Weather Stations’ poll released last weekend show the first significant drop in approval and trust ratings for President Duterte. The net approval rating fell from +66% in June to +48% in September, with falls across all geographic and almost all demographic sub-groups. Duterte’s polling numbers and their trajectory for the first 15 months of his presidency are very similar to his predecessors.

His coalition of support is becoming less diverse and less pliable. The militant left have withdrawn from his coalition and are returning to their normal opposition function. The Senate does not support the return of the death penalty or lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 9 years old. 16 of 23 sitting senators recently signed a resolution questioning the conduct of the war on drugs.

Targets of Duterte’s political attacks are pushing back. The Catholic Church is organising nation-wide protests and offering safe haven to police officers who want to speak out against the war on drugs. Major media outlets targeted are showing no signs of wavering.

President Duterte’s personalistic, bombastic and divisive approach to the presidency will make facing these ordinary political pressures more challenging, auguring badly for the remainder of his administration.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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