Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s handling of Covid-19 has not been exemplary by most measures.
The country has reported more than 500,000 cases and 10,000 coronavirus deaths, the second-highest toll in south-east Asia after Indonesia. Gross domestic product shrank 9.5 per cent in 2020 according to the country’s statistics agency, the first time the economy has contracted since 1998.
The populist president has imposed lockdowns that have failed to tame the pandemic and led to a rise human rights abuses. The country’s vaccine policy is in disarray, with accusations that some close to the strongman leader have received preferential treatment.
Despite this, Mr Duterte’s approval rating was 91 per cent in the most recent survey published by Pulse Asia in October — a 4 point rise on its previous poll in December 2019, before Covid-19 was reported in the Philippines.
Christine Choco is one of tens of millions of Filipinos who back the 75-year-old president. “I really like him,” said Ms Choco, 40, a virtual assistant for an Australian ecommerce company. “There are some things he does that I approve of and some things I don’t, but at the end of the day we just have to support him.”
Some analysts have questioned the reliability of opinion surveys and asked if the government’s cash handouts to millions of poor households — or fear of heavy-handed authorities — played a role in some Filipinos’ responses.
Few, however, deny that Mr Duterte remains popular. Most believe his imprint will endure on the country’s politics after his term ends in 2022.
“People still believe in him, despite mismanagement of the pandemic,” said Calixto Chikiamco, president of the Foundation for Economic Freedom, an advocacy group. “They might think he can’t be faulted for the pandemic because it’s a global phenomenon.”
Human rights groups say deaths under the president’s crackdown on narcotics trafficking have also increased during the pandemic. From April to July, when the Philippines was in its strictest phase of lockdowns, killings linked to the so-called drugs war jumped more than 50 per cent compared with the previous four-month period, according to Human Rights Watch.
“Red-tagging”, the public naming of leftwing activists, has also increased, which has resulted in many being killed.
Authorities have also intensified pressure on independent media during the pandemic, shutting down ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcaster, and lodging further criminal charges against Maria Ressa, the chief executive of news website Rappler.
Civil society groups have raised the alarm about deteriorating freedoms but those concerns have not led to an uptick in support for Mr Duterte’s political opposition, led by vice-president Leni Robredo, who had a 57 per cent approval rating, according to the Pulse Asia survey.
“[Mr Duterte] is very popular among poor and middle-class Filipinos,” said Carlos Conde, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “One reason is because his political opposition hasn’t really provided a viable alternative to him.”
Mr Duterte has cultivated a crude everyman persona that includes regular use of sexist remarks and obscenities. But while pundits in the press scold him, ordinary Filipinos find it funny or unsurprising.
Ms Ressa and other critics have also pointed to legions of pro-Duterte social media warriors who amplify and promote the president’s image and narratives and attack his opponents.
This network of support may help explain why Mr Duterte has shrugged off scandals around his administration’s vaccine policy, including reports that members of his bodyguard received the Chinese Sinovac vaccine before the general public.
Some analysts are examining whether survey bias has played a role in the president’s approval ratings. “In the Philippine context, people are deferential to their leaders,” said Ronald Mendoza, dean of Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government. “In an environment where there is a lot of uncertainty, joblessness, hunger and the pandemic, it is understandable that people are fearful and that they gravitate toward people who make them feel secure.”
Mr Mendoza is leading a team studying the factors that can influence a survey participant’s response, such as the requirement that pollsters secure clearance from local officials before conducting face-to-face interviews.
“It’s not that we are saying President Duterte doesn’t enjoy support, but that there may be factors that affect your environment, your perception of agency and whether you feel safe when you answer your questions,” he said.
Ms Choco admitted that Mr Duterte’s performance had been “not perfect”.
“I’m not saying that I agree with everything he decided on, with all his decisions,” she said.
But she still backed the president. “At the end of the day, I still support him.”
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Additional reporting by Guill Ramos in Manila