PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte appears to be invincible, for now.
He continues to have high trust and approval ratings. His cursing and rape jokes notwithstanding, his presidency remains popular among an overwhelming majority of the Filipino people, across social classes, and in all geographical areas of the country.
This is true despite the incessant, relentless and sustained demonization that his critics have unleashed since Day One of his presidency, which even extended into the global arena courtesy of a hostile Western media, as well as international human rights organizations.
All the major political institutions of government have backed the controversial moves of the President. He has a supermajority in Congress that overwhelmingly approved his request to extend martial law in Mindanao. The Supreme Court has so far upheld his contentious decisions by lopsided votes, from the legality of the burial of former President Ferdinand Marcos to the constitutionality of his martial law declaration.
All the negative press he is getting locally and abroad, focusing on his alleged fascist tendencies, fail to make a dent for several reasons.
First is the fact that his strong-arm policy is aimed at the issues of drugs and crime that resonate with majority of the people.
Second is the fact that his critics are perceived by majority of the people as voices of the hypocritical political elites who did nothing to address such issues, and are perceived to be responsible for most of the people’s woes.
But most important is the fact that he is not even a fascist. Despite being a strong leader, he does not evince a Mussolini, or a Franco, or a Hitler. His anti-Americanism, anti-Western stance is not cast as one that is based around a nationalist discourse privileging the superiority of the Filipino race. In fact, he is less an emotional nationalist than a more pragmatic realist in his foreign policy.
If one can concede it, his fascist tendency is all verbal and oral, but never substantive and is not matched by what a true fascist must bear. His declaration of martial law could not even be a basis for putting such a label on him, for the simple fact that the 1987 Constitution has virtually rendered martial law as more of a symbolic threat, and is in fact a toothless version of its Marcosian predecessor.
President Duterte, despite his bravado, uses the institutions of law and the Constitution, and the political processes. He may appear intimidating, but in the end, he succumbs to the power of dialogue and reason. He threatens, but he also listens, which in fact is what our fathers do to most of us, and we rarely call our fathers fascists.
Thus, if the President should unravel, it will not be from the demonization by his political critics.
The President’s Achilles’ heel will not be from his discursive excesses much hated by the liberal elites and human rights advocates, but would necessarily emanate the moment the comfort of his supporters begins to be threatened.
It is not the allegations of human rights violations that will weaken the President’s armor.
It will be when his policies and actions, and the acts of his allies begin to erode the trust, and almost blind support that his most dedicated supporters give him.
And I see several issues where the President may be vulnerable.
The issue on the tax reform proposal which he is pushing for Congress to approve is one. Taxes are always a contentious issue, and the issue becomes even more explosive when there is perception that the tax proposals favor the rich over the poor. Indeed, it is logical to argue that in order for development to be funded, and to avoid borrowing money, the government needs to raise revenue through taxes. But this argument is a technical one that will not resonate with somebody whose increase in take-home income will be negated by increasing expenditures due to excise and indirect taxes.
The issue of drugs and crime resonates because it is palpable to the poor. This is the same logic that can erode the President’s approval rating. Road-building projects are too far off from the minds of people who do not have cars, but would feel the increase in the price of 3-in-1 coffee.
Another issue that can hurt the President is the reversal of his free education policy in state universities and colleges, the evidence of which is that it was not even provided for in the budget for 2018. Ordinary people will not understand that this is in fact a problematic policy, and that its insertion in the 2017 budget was just a one-time realignment from the ARMM allocation.
The President and Congress must seriously address these concerns, as these are issues that can weaken his support from his very own political base.
And if there is another task the President must do, it is to rein in the leaders of the House of Representatives, who are his allies. Their actions, from threatening to abolish the Court of Appeals, to defying it and denying lowly government officials their freedom, to showing abusive pettiness and using their power to get back at critics and rivals, undermines the integrity of the institution of government, of prudence and reason, and of the rule of law.
The President should be informed that even his most loyal supporters are very much offended by the antics of the House leaders.
While for now it seems that the President is decoupled and insulated from the House’s unpopular moves, he should not wait for the time when the House leaders, and their arrogance, pettiness and excesses, become the Trojan horses that will weaken his government from within.