As the country marks President Rodrigo Duterte’s first year in power, it is clear that he stands to become—if he isn’t already—one of the most popular figures in Philippine political history. Polarizing, too, yes, but there is no denying the unflinching, almost fanatical support that the former long-time Davao City mayor continues to enjoy.
In addition to Duterte’s self-fashioning as a political underdog up battling the political giants, many political observers attribute his enduring popularity to the vote that catapulted him to power a year ago, which gave him a rousing, unequivocal mandate. The year 2016 witnessed what was easily the most efficient and credible conduct of the automated elections and, for Duterte, a climactic end to a captivating narrative.
In a Pulse Asia survey, a huge majority—89 percent—of the respondents thought that the results of the election were believable. This was in addition to other positive observations, such as on the speed of the release of the results and the orderliness of the conduct of the polls.
Thus, while there was a sense of volatility during Duterte’s campaign, the legitimacy that he received following the 2016 polls is beyond reproach. In a sense, therefore, the oft-cited 16-million strong who voted for him—and the broad acceptability of the election results—gave him the crucial power to behave the way he does and espouse the kind of politics that he stands for, no matter how intense the criticisms.
And criticize they did. His controversial war on drugs—which some groups say is responsible for up to 12,000 fatalities—has elicited near-wholesale condemnation from the international community. Photos of bloodied corpses sprawled on Manila’s pavements grace the covers and front pages of foreign publications. However, supporters point out that the campaign has also occasioned the surrender of more than a million drug users and pushers and more than a billion pesos worth of shabu taken off the streets.
Elsewhere, his foreign policy—the much-vaunted severing of ties with the United States and the warming relationship with Beijing and Moscow—goes against the sentiment of a majority of Filipinos. He is accused of being soft on the West Philippine Sea row and squandering the moral and legal upper hand in which he began his term after the favorable decision of the International Court of Arbitration.
The usual charges of corruption, ineptitude, and political vendetta continue. Department of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II has been accused of spreading fake news, the always camera-ready PNP Chief Ronald Bato dela Rosa has not been immune to televised gaffes, and some believe that
Senator Leila De Lima, one of Duterte’s staunchest critics, is in jail for fabricated charges.
Even so, Duterte cannot be accused of reneging on his key promises. On the economic front, he is lauded for wisely leveraging on the key gains of the administration of Noynoy Aquino via his 10-point Socioeconomic Agenda, foremost of which is continuing the fiscal, monetary, and other macroeconomic policies of Aquino’s economic managers. A long-overdue tax reform package is also in the works, geared to make taxation more just and equitable. Millions of Filipino taxpayers are envisioned to pay lower taxes under the proposal, while supposedly imposing higher taxes on the rich.
The area of infrastructure is also a rallying call. The administration’s bold and ambitious Build Build Build program is seen to eliminate transportation and trade bottlenecks while creating much-needed jobs. The push toward federalism, or some version of it, has gained the most traction in the last 12 months than the past two decades. Proponents say the structural reform can provide the paradigm shift needed to develop long-ignored regions away from the capital.
And so despite the polarizing character of the one-year-old presidency, it seems to be propped up by, among others, the momentum derived from his overwhelming mandate. To a large extent, that legitimacy has shielded Duterte from debilitating censure and allowed him to persist with his unique brand of Dutertismo politics. Whether one is for or against him, there is no denying that the rest of his term is bound to be similarly eventful.