- The president’s numbers are up across geographies and socio-economic groups, even among those hardest-hit by the economic contraction.
- His approval ratings reflect public worries about the pandemic, which will likely cause his government to continue with its cautious and gradual approach to reopening the economy.
- It may give his tax reform proposal a boost, and increase expectations that his daughter, Sara, could become a leading candidate to succeed him in 2022.
The first major survey since the start of the pandemic reported a 91% national public approval rating for President Rodrigo Duterte, up four percentage points from the last survey done in December 2019. His numbers in the survey conducted 14-20 September improved the most in the areas and among the socio-economic groups that have been hardest-hit by the lock downs and consequent economic contraction. In the metropolitan Manila area, his approval rating is up 10 percentage points, to 88%, while within the “E” group, which comprises the lowest income level in the country and which accounts for an estimated 30% of the population, his approval is higher by 11 percentage points, to 95%. Major controversies over the past few months such as the closure of the country’s largest broadcasting network, the weak testing and tracing regime, and widespread corruption at the national health insurer did not affect his numbers. The survey firm, Pulse Asia, is credible and its methodology indicates that the poll was conducted face-to-face.
Duterte has avoided the precipitous decline in popularity that affected all Philippine presidents mid-term after the Marcos years. With the pandemic dominating domestic politics, the survey numbers likely reflect peoples’ acceptance of the government’s policies to curb the spread of the disease — even at great economic cost to them and the country, and with all the government’s inconsistencies and missteps being treated as par for the course. Another poll done in September showed that 85% of the population were either somewhat or very much worried of getting sick of Covid-19, only slightly lower than the 87% in May, indicating how public fear of the virus and acceptance of government actions likely trumped their economic fears.
With only 20 months to go before the end of his term, and roughly 14 months from the start of election season, Duterte now has little reason to fear instability or even a popular challenge from the opposition. Duterte’s approval ratings could still drop in the middle of next year, especially if a vaccine is still widely unavailable and the economy remains very weak. Even then, any major shift in the president’s approval ratings is still two or three quarters away, and by that time the focus will be on run-up to the 2022 elections.
Duterte is also being helped by the opposition’s incompetence. Vice-President Leni Robredo’s approval ratings, also reported in the same survey, dropped by a percentage point to 57%. She was down across all income levels and in the capital. Robredo ran with a different party in 2016 and Duterte only last month said she “should not destroy” the government, in reference to her constant criticism of his policies during the pandemic. The survey confirms that Robredo has not gained any traction despite the administration’s policy missteps and that the opposition remains ineffective as an alternative in the public’s eye.
Consequences for growth, tax reform and politics
The survey indicates the strong benefit of the doubt accorded to the government and Duterte, but this may be slightly negative for broad economic growth in the near term. The administration, recognizing the public’s fear of the virus, will likely continue to proceed only gradually with the reopening of the economy — after all, as the survey has shown it is not paying any political price for the economic slowdown. Also, should the infection numbers again surge, the government will continue to be willing to implement lock downs despite their economic consequences, although these are likely to be targeted like what is happening in the rest of the world. It will also ease the pressure on the country’s economic managers to further increase spending, since the government is not being penalized politically for having one of the smallest stimulus programs in the region. The alternative scenario is that the administration uses Duterte’s political capital to push for an accelerated opening of the economy, but this is less likely given that the dominant perception is that another surge in infections because of a mishandling in the easing up of restrictions could be more costly politically.
It is also slightly positive for the government’s efforts to pass tax reform legislation, especially the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act (CREATE) bill, which cuts corporate taxes and rationalizes the system by which tax incentives are granted. The latter is controversial with the export and business process outsourcing sector, who believe they may lose their incentives, but Duterte’s high approval ratings may cause senators to be more reluctant in their opposition if the president and economic team push strongly for it in the coming months.
The survey will sustain and even increase perceptions that a Duterte endorsement will be valuable in 2022, and it will likely strengthen the factions that support fielding his daughter, Sara, as his successor. It could also result in the administration eyeing Duterte’s closest aide, Senator Lawrence Go, as a vice-presidential candidate. The opposition is fragmented, and its best chance now likely liesin a multi-candidate race that splits votes both nationally and across socioeconomic groups.