Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte enters 2019 riding high in opinion polls, a surge in popularity that is buoying the electoral prospects of his political allies ahead of crucial mid-term polls set for later this year.

The elections, scheduled for May 13, will serve as a de facto referendum on Duterte’s controversial rule and will determine the balance of power in the legislature, crucial to advancing the tough-talking leader’s agenda for the second half of his six-year term.

The stakes, political analysts say, could not be higher for Philippine democracy.

In particular, if Duterte’s allies win control of the powerful Senate, now a last elected bastion of opposition to his rule, the president will be in a position to push for sweeping and potentially transformative legal change.

That could include broached revisions to the national constitution, including a possible removal of legal term limits for elected officials, including the president, and a move towards a federal system of governance.

After another year of fiery rhetoric, including frequent verbal spats with the Catholic Church in the deeply conservative Christian nation and broadsides directed at critics of his policies, Duterte’s approval ratings are on an upward trajectory again after falling off last year amid various controversies.

Then presidential aspirant Rodrigo Duterte stands in front of a campaign poster on November 30, 2015. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Rodrigo Duterte stands in front of a campaign poster on November 30, 2015. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Those controversies included rising local and foreign criticism of his “war on drugs” campaign, where thousands of drug suspects have been killed since mid-2016.

While the policy has raised international concerns of possible crimes against humanity, including an initial review of the campaign by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, it has resonated among certain local constituencies for its purported tough approach to crime.

A survey by local pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS) conducted between December 16-19 showed that Duterte has a 74% satisfaction rating, with a “very good” net approval rating of 60%. Those marks were higher than any of his predecessors at this stage of their presidencies.

The survey also marked a six point increase from the previous quarter, and brought Duterte’s annual average approval rating for 2018 to a respectable 54%, (though the rating was five percentage points lower than in 2017.)

Moreover, Duterte’s popularity is rising across all constituencies. In Metro Manila, the national capital, his approval rating was up a whopping 22% year on year, 21% among rich and upper middle classes and 20% among the poorest classes, the survey showed.

His highest approval rating, however, was among college graduates, hitting 65% and marking an 11% increase from the previous quarter.

Duterte’s supporters demonstrate public backing for his lethal drug crackdown in Manila, February 26, 2017. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

That’s brought cheer to Duterte’s presidential palace.

“The palace welcomes the results of the (SWS) survey… These results registered an uptick in all socio-economic classes,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panel said. “We thank the Filipino people for their continued support for the president as such only motivates us to unceasingly work harder and serve them better as we aim for the best for the Philippines and its people.”

A separate survey, conducted in mid-December by local pollster Pulse Asia, similarly showed public sentiment swinging in Duterte’s favor. It showed his approval ratings were up six points quarter on quarter, reaching a new sky high of 81%.

Historically, Filipino presidents have received a holiday boost at end of the year opinion polls, as Christmas and New Year festivities temporarily soften political divisions.

But there were likely other factors at play in Duterte’s new popularity surge, including the public relations coup scored from America’s return in December of the iconic Balangiga Bells. Duterte had called strongly and persistently for the return of the bells, which were taken as war booty during America’s colonial occupation of the country.

Duterte has also apparently ridden out a surge in inflation that surveys showed were hitting the country’s poor – and by association is approval ratings – the hardest. After seven consecutive months of rising inflation, which reached a ten-year high of 6.7% last October, commodity prices have more recently begun to stabilize.

After heavy imports of food commodities, which played a major role in the spike in prices of basic goods, inflation eased to 6% in November and is expected to ease to 5% this year, economists predict.
The president’s rising ratings are boosting his political allies, including those running for seats in the 24-member Senate.

President Rodrigo Duterte (L) with personal assistant Christopher Lawrence ‘Bong’ Go (R). Photo: Philippine Government Handout

Duterte’s long-time ally and special assistant Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go has enjoyed the biggest jump in recent opinion surveys, surging to within striking distance of the 12 seats up for grabs in the senate race.

Go’s posters and billboards have recently become ubiquitous across the country, often showing him alongside the president who serves in the portrayals as “tatay” (father) and Go as “kuya” (big brother) of the nation.

Recent surveys also show that other key Duterte allies, including former police chief Bato Dela Rosa, Imee Marcos, Koko Pimentel and Pia Cayetano are also in strong positions to win Senate seats.

Only two opposition candidates, former presidential candidate Mar Roxas and incumbent Senator Bam Aquino are currently in the race’s top 12, a sign of growing opposition weakness ahead of the pivotal polls.