Why Duterte endures and remains politically popular?

(Part 1 of the Series)

The political opposition, the reds, and their supporters probably wonder until now why a certain Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte’s with his maverick and tough political persona rise from being mayor of Davao City in southern Mindanao to being president of the Philippines.

They are probably wondering and still can’t grasp and accept the fact that someone who did not hail from the political elites of “imperial Manila” will occupy the highest position of the land and will continue to win the hearts and minds of the Filipino people with his 91 percent trust rating even if he has less than two years in office only.

To note, Duterte won decisively and overwhelmingly with 16.6 million votes6.6 million more than his closest rival, and more than any other president in Philippine history.

This was even though he joined the presidential race in 2016 late; he spent the least and he did not have the support and the backing of traditional money politics or a pre-existing network of local political bosses supporting him; he is not a celebrity and did not have prior elected and appointed national political post for he was purely a local/provincial politician from Mindanao, and was not backed by a major political party at the time he ran for the presidency, and most of all, was not an “heir” to an old generation of national-level political families like the Aquinos.

But then again, despite all the odds, he won the presidency. And until now, he continues to remain popular and enjoys the overwhelming support of more than the majority of Filipinos in the face of the continuous attempts of the reds and the political opposition to discredit him and his administration, to oust him from office, and destabilize his government, which sadly have failed many times over. Why is this so?

The Protest of the Middle Class:

Mr. Duterte’s victory in the presidential race was a phenomenon that is somehow perceived by many as not only the “revolt of the poor” but is being identified to be the “protest of the middle class”, who suffered from lack of public service, endured the horrendous land and air traffic, feared the breakdown of peace and order, apprehensive of the magnitude and latency of the drug problem in the country, and silently witnessed their tax money siphoned by corruption despite promises of improved governance of the previous administration.

It can be recalled that, halfway through the Aquino administration, the “liberal reformist agenda” and the “daang matuwid” of the previous administration collapsed. Even before P’Noy’s term ended, his administration was already bombarded with widespread structural problems and political blunders that made Filipino turned to Duterte for hope and redemption in the 2016 Presidential elections. 

The Aquino administration halfway through his term already lost integrity and legitimacy not only because of the major pork barrel scandal in 2013 exposing legislators pocketing public funds but also because economic growth, though fast, it remained overwhelming unequal with high unemployment and increased in self-reported poverty.

The Aquino administration also suffered much on the pressing issue of land reform because of the Aquino-Cojuangco family’s obstinate resistance to court-ordered land redistribution of its vast sugar estate, which was perceived by many as one of the reasons why former Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached on 12 December 2011. 

The public also perceived the previous administration as incompetent in dealing with the devastation and surrounding issues related to super-typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

It was also perceived as slow in building or maintaining infrastructure in the country’s major cities, which are plagued by the worst traffic in Asia, and failed to deliver on its promised institutional reforms, including an attempt to clean up the notoriously corrupt Bureau of Customs (BOC).

The previous administration also failed to pass the hugely popular “Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill,” which got shelved in the labyrinthine halls of Congress despite the previous administration’s declaration of a strong anti-corruption stance. The Aquino leadership simply failed in shepherding the FOI Bill to the disappointment of many Filipinos. 

Moreover, the Aquino presidency lured more flak when the news about the drug lords in Bilibid prison was “living like kings,” and when it failed to end the trial of the accused perpetrators in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, in which 57 people, including 32 journalists were murdered at the bidding of the powerful Ampatuan family.

Likewise, another major scandal that befell the previous administration was the “Mamasapano Tragedy”, an ill-conceived mission that sent 44 Special Action Force troopers to their death and brought the PNP to an internal crisis just a year before the 2016 elections

All these incidents taken together were not only very damaging to the image and integrity of the previous administration, which was perceived even until now as incapable, weak, and incapacitated in enforcing the law, but more than anything drained the Aquino administration of democratic legitimacy and elicited much frustrations and disappointments from the Filipino people and even from among its supporters.

Why Duterte?

Ignoring the plight of the poor and the failure of the previous administration to recognize and respond to the demands of ordinary Filipinos, with the heightened public dissatisfaction with the “business-as-usual” practices, and the weak democratic leadership of the Aquino administration, fed-up with decades of gridlock in government and poor public services, enflamed and angered, the Filipino people chose an alternative and elected Rodrigo Roa Duterte to the presidency in the last 2016 Presidential elections.

Duterte’s persona of being a “blunt-tough-talking” strongman and leader with a strong political will, who can resiliently and fiercely act on the longstanding political and socio-economic,  challenges and a new set of challenges the country is faced with, such as, corruption, violent crime, peace and order, drug menace, the continuing banditry and insurgency in the south, curbing the longest-running insurgency of the CPP-NDF-NPA, internal and external threats of terrorism, devastation brought about by natural calamities, the COVID-19 pandemic and the like, made him a formidable leader of the country, of whom 91 percent of Filipinos continue to support and trust. Duterte’s aura of “authenticity and masculinity” are traits that the Filipino masses admire in him since the beginning.

This characterization of Duterte instantly clicked not only with the masses that provided him with strong support from taxi drivers, small shop owners, call-center agents, and overseas workers, but interestingly even among the middle class.

Despite the political antics and criticisms thrown against Duterte and his administration on an almost daily basis on national television and social media by his political enemies and detractors, mostly belonging to the political party of the previous administration, the reds and their supporters, surprisingly, Duterte’s political enemies have not succeeded in bringing the Filipino people to their cause. Mr. Duterte has remained popular, even as he continually graced the headlines, because of his typical but highly controversial strong and blunt-tough-talking persona and penchant for informalities.

And this has been evidenced by the fact that Duterte consistently continues to enjoy and glean wide popularity among many Filipinos since day one. In the last three years of his administration from July 2016 – July 2019, survey after survey has yielded a strikingly similar result, and that is: Duterte has the backing and support of most Filipinos. Duterte received as high and as impressive an 88 percent approval rating from Filipinos halfway through his term.

The results of the latest Pulse Asia survey conducted last September 2020 had even surpassed the previous trust/approval rating of Duterte. The said survey delivered a 92 percent approval rating for Duterte in terms of handling the coronavirus pandemic, and a historic high of 91 percent trust rating, which is thus far unprecedented. Why is this so?

The answer is quite simple but profound. Duterte has successfully won the hearts and minds of the Filipinos, not necessarily because his presidency has been near perfect, but because the Filipinos have faith and continue to trust that he possesses the critical leadership attributes and acumen that were not only deficient in his predecessor, but are very much relevant and needed, especially now that the country is fighting a pandemic, and working on mitigating the devastation brought by natural calamities/disasters along with other challenges.

The Filipino people continue to believe and have confidence in Duterte because they see in him a leader that perseveres to deliver on his promises with a strong political will to make things happen despite the odds along the way.

Also, Filipinos see Duterte as one of them and can relate to him. They see him as not corrupt. They see him as a leader who does not care about making money but a leader who is focused on his job as the head of state and the head of government, which stands in sharp contrast to his predecessors. All these and more continuously made Mr. Duterte more popular and appealing to the majority of the Filipinos, both living in the country and abroad.

Similarly, Mr. Duterte’s exhibition of altruism adds to his charm and appeal as the nation’s patriarch. Despite his busy schedules and many responsibilities, he makes it a point to visit the military troops regularly to boost their morale. He attends wakes of slain soldiers, police officers, and other law enforcers who died performing their duties and take care of their grieving families, something that his predecessor did not care to do. These acts all the more made Duterte endearing to Filipinos.

More than anything, Filipinos adore Mr. Duterte because of his simplicity, modesty, unpretentiousness, and humility in public service. He forbids the hanging of his portrait in government offices. He also prohibits government officials, including the office of the president to serve expensive food during government social events. He prefers simple food that an average Filipino consumes daily.

Such displays and actions of Duterte make him all the more delectable to the majority of the Filipinos. To his supporters who thus far outnumber his critics, Duterte is a faithful public servant who does his job with vigor, authenticity, and consistency, and their defender from ruthless criminals, terrorists, and from the many evil effects of illegal drugs.


Hence, President Duterte has roughly less than two years before his term ends on June 30, 2022. His presidency is far from perfect. It has its lapses and limitations. However, his critics fail to recognize that the majority of Filipinos see, like, and enjoy the good things that his administration and strong-willed leadership imparts to them, courtesy in part to his strong political will.

The majority of the Filipinos, whether the political opposition, the reds and his critics agree or not, do not necessarily view President Duterte as a threat to the country’s democracy. Instead, they see him as their leader who tries his best to deliver the necessary public goods needed by the country and its populace.

The majority of Filipinos are satisfied with how Mr. Duterte is handling the country’s affairs, providing and extending to them that sense and feeling of security and freedom that they did not experience before his election to the presidency.

Source: Sovereign PH

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD), Peking University, Beijing, China. She is currently a director and the Vice President for External Affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a think tank based in Manila. She also serves as the political/geopolitical analyst of ACPSSI. Currently, she is a Senior Researcher of the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) and a Senior Research Fellow of the Global Governance Institution (GGI). She is also the President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines. Prof. Anna Uy taught Political Science, International Relations, Development Studies, European Studies, Southeast Asia, and China Studies. She is a researcher-writer, academic, and consultant on a wide array of issues. She has worked as a consultant with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs.