When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his final State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, a meandering, profanity-laden spiel that broke the record for a speech that was recorded in two hours and 45 minutes, he faced winds against some of its predecessors. had found.
Duterte acknowledged this in his speech when he said that his “dreams and visions of a better life for all Filipinos” had run into some “unforeseen events,” referring to COVID-19 and the shutdown that paralyzed his plans.
As a result of the pandemic, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 declined by 9.5 percent, the worst since 1947 and the first contraction since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.
As the lockdown continues, 49 percent of the country’s 110 million people say they face poverty, and 4.8 million families say they are hungry, according to the Social Weather Station (SWS) polling agency. . The poverty rate had been slowly declining for years until the pandemic hit, but the Asian Development Bank now estimates that it will be around 20 percent in 2020 and 2021.
In April, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that unemployment had risen to 8.7 percent, or about 4.14 million people.
But even after months of lockdown and restrictions, the country has failed to reduce its COVID-19 numbers.
The Philippines has had more than 1.5 million cases and at least 27,000 Filipinos have lost their lives since the pandemic began.
Now that the Delta variant threatens to unleash another more dangerous wave, Duterte warned that it could ruin the economy and cause “irreversible damage.”
On Monday, he seemed to have no answers and told Filipinos that he “would not know what to do” if the Delta variant was extended further. He said another blockade could be imposed, adding that the country may “have to pray for salvation.”
On the geopolitical front, China continues its numerous forays into Philippine waters, with hundreds of what Manila calls its “maritime militia” seen swarming the Spratly Islands in recent months. Beijing has also been expanding its artificial islands within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), raising questions about whether Duterte’s appeasement to Beijing is working.
The president’s “war on drugs” has also gotten him in trouble with the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Court is investigating the Duterte administration’s campaign that has allegedly killed thousands of Filipinos but has prevented major drug traffickers from being prosecuted.
On Monday, the president, who can only serve one term under the constitution, was defiant, declaring that his war on drugs is far from over. He said that he had never denied that he would kill those who were “to destroy” the Philippines.
However, Duterte has remained very popular during his last 11 months. In a Pulse Asia poll of vice presidential candidates this month, Duterte came in first place, while a Publicus Asia poll in July gave him an approval rating of 58 percent and a confidence rating of 55 percent.
His daughter, Sara Duterte, mayor of Davao City, is now contemplating a run for president. If the popular politician decides to throw her hat into the ring, Sara could run for the position of president, while her father is campaigning for the position of vice president in the May 2022 elections.
House Majority Leader Martín Romualdez, a Duterte ally, was quoted by the state-funded Philippine News Agency as saying that he expected Duterte’s popularity ratings to rise in the coming months, which He said it was “a validation of people’s trust and satisfaction in the Dutertes public service brand.”
However, some analysts and critics attribute Duterte’s popularity to a divided opposition.
They say that despite his obvious gaffes, he has managed to control the national narrative by playing on the fears of the country’s citizens. There have also been allegations that the administration paid online trolls to target opposition figures and used officials to go after its critics.
“The opposition groups have been largely weak and are not yet unified, although we see that more sectors are becoming more vocal due to the poor response of the government to the pandemic and the economic recession”, Maria Ela Atienza, science professor politics at the University of the Philippines. (ABOVE), he told Al Jazeera.
Robin Michael Garcia, president and CEO of WR Numero, a technology-driven survey and data analytics firm based in Manila, agrees.
He says the opposition and non-aligned political figures have been unable to “articulate an equally powerful alternative narrative to ‘Dutertism,'” a term coined to refer to the president’s type of leadership.
“This inability is also due to their limited material resources and their inconsistent and disunited opposition. They are still splintered and you see different voices against Duterte, ”Garcia said.
He adds that opposition figures, including Vice President Leni Robredo, have not been united and consistent in their criticism of the president. Robredo is the most prominent opposition figure in the country. He is also reportedly contemplating a presidential race, but is behind Duterte in the polls.
Other voices of opposition have also emerged, including former Duterte allies, world-renowned boxer and senator Manny Pacquiao, who has begun to take on the president for failing to fight corruption. The president of the Senate, Vicente Sotto, has also questioned the competence and leadership of the president.
Raoul Manuel, a spokesman for the youth-oriented political party Kabataan, says: “They are using state terror to force ordinary citizens to accept their leadership at a time when disinformation is prevalent,” Manuel told Al Jazeera.
“Normal citizens are threatened with lawsuits and legal action just because they are posting something on social media. So the voices that want to express their dissent are being drowned out, ”he said.
Given the advantage of his concern, Duterte can also muster the machinery of government to highlight the positive points of his type of leadership “even if it is already detrimental to the Filipinos,” Manuel explained in Tagalog and English.
“So it seems that what is dominating the conversation is the coverage of the headlines, including the president and his allies.”
Atienza, the UP political science professor, notes that a July 2020 Social Meteorological Station mobile phone survey showed that just over half of Filipinos agreed with the statement that: “It is dangerous to print or spread something that criticizes the administration, is the truth. “
“Perhaps this means that people are also afraid to tell the truth even in polls because of the prevailing culture of fear created by the administration,” he said. “In an interview with Ronald Holmes of Pulse Asia last year, he said that fear, while difficult to measure, cannot be ruled out in the survey responses.”
Bumps and misses
Despite the pandemic and the ailing economy, Duterte has managed to pass some important bills since taking office in 2016, Atienza said. She credits the president with passing the Bangsamoro Organic Law in 2018, which has advanced the peace process in the Muslim region on the southern island of Mindanao.
Other major legislation includes free tuition at state colleges and universities, as well as universal health care in 2019, he added.
Dr. Jaifred Christian López, a physician and public health expert from the University of the Philippines, also said that the passage of the universal health care law was a “milestone” in Duterte’s presidency, as he had worked on the mechanisms of financing.
Beyond the problems of the bloody war on drugs and China’s invasion of the South China Sea, Atienza says there have also been considerable failures in Duterte’s presidency, including his inability to end short-term labor contracts. term of millions of workers, as well as the unfinished. rehabilitation of the southern city of Marawi.
Marawi in Mindanao was razed to the ground by the government during its months-long operation against Muslim armed groups affiliated with the ISIL (ISIS) group in 2017. So far, thousands of families have been unable to return to their homes and remain internally displaced. .
Still, Atienza believes Duterte will also be remembered for his clumsiness in responding to the pandemic, which he says has relied “too much” on former military and police generals.
Manuel of the Kabataan party also says Duterte’s inability to handle the pandemic is his “biggest failure.”
“Their response to the pandemic is based on militaristic solutions,” he said. “As simple as COVID testing and tracking, which should have been in order since the start of the pandemic, as well as financial assistance for people in lockdown, weren’t even enough or were delayed.”
An unpredictable 2022
Analysts say the political terrain could still change due to uncertainty due to the economic recession and the pandemic.
“There is still a lot of alliance building and many factors that we have to consider,” said UP’s Atienza.
Due to the “weakness” of the political parties in the Philippines, manifested in the recent “implosion” of Duterte’s PDP-Laban party and its break with Senator Pacquiao, as well as other external factors, “things remain unpredictable.” he explained. .
When asked if Duterte senior and Duterte junior could jointly run in 2022 and be viable, Atienza said it is “too early to say whether the daughter-father tandem will materialize … although they are testing the waters.”
For Noel Gumalis, 45, a Mindanao voter who supported Duterte in 2016, such a prospect would be “undesirable.”
“I found his response to the pandemic lacking, so I will not vote for him if he ever runs for vice president. Time to try a new leader. Also, you cannot allow a single family to run the country, ”Gumalis, a mechanic, told Al Jazeera.
Romyelle Sy, 36, a businesswoman also from Mindanao, says she is unlikely to support any of Duterte’s possible nominations next year, and says the government “screwed up” its distribution of financial aid to needy families. .
Next door, Steve Turlao, 44, works as a construction laborer. He supported Duterte in 2016 and will do so again in 2022, he says, despite the financial hardships he has endured for the past two years. He says he blames the pandemic, not Duterte.
Capturing the sentiment of voters who are wary of the pandemic and its ongoing economic effect is likely to be crucial for anyone running for president in 2022.
“The 2022 elections will be primarily about effective governance towards the response to the pandemic,” said Garcia, director of survey and analysis firm WR Numero. “This is not about real change versus fake change like 2016, nor is it about good versus evil like 2010. So whoever is able to convince people about the response to the pandemic will have a good chance.
“So far Duterte has been good at framing the narrative, but the opposition not quite.”