Duterte and the poor: What the surveys say

Janella Paris

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Duterte and the poor: What the surveys say
Throughout his 3 years in office, President Rodrigo Duterte has managed to keep poor Filipinos satisfied with his performance. Pollsters help us make sense of this.

MANILA, Philippines – They’re disheartened each time prices of basic goods rose or a scandal smacked of outright injustice. But in the last 3 years, the poor continued to trust and approve of President Rodrigo Duterte’s leadership. 

Killings in the war on drugs, inflation, job insecurity – there are just some of the issues that many poor Filipinos have had to grapple with throughout Duterte’s first half in office. (READ: Two years of Duterte: Broken and fulfilled promises)

But each time these threatened to dampen his popularity, the President managed to bounce back, according to Mahar Mangahas and Ana Maria Tabunda, heads of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) and Pulse Asia survey companies, respectively.

Duterte’s brand as a populist leader has contributed a lot to his good ratings among the poor.

While the drug war shows “disregard for human rights,” Mangahas said, what will always come first for classes D and E are “bread and butter” issues. And as long as Duterte delivers in that aspect, one can expect satisfaction among the poor to remain high. 

“They see empathy, authenticity in this president,” Tabunda said. “He sounds like their neighborhood siga (tough guy) with a dirty mouth but with a pusong mamon (soft heart),” she added. (READ: The Duterte insult list) 

Tony La Viña, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, agreed: “He ran [in the elections] as a populist and he continues to rule as a populist. People like him kasi aksyon kaagad (act fast), even if it seems unreasonable.”

Quarterly checks

Rappler looks at quarterly surveys done by SWS and Pulse Asia from September 2016 to March 2019 to see what the poor think of the President, focusing on classes D and E – low middle income, low income, and poor households. 

There is more than one way of defining “poor” in the Philippine context.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in April 2019 said that the proportion of Filipinos in poverty was at 21% – this means around 21 million Filipinos living in poverty. The count involves setting a welfare indicator based on income per capita. 

Another important marker is self-rated poverty. A fourth quarter 2018 SWS survey found that around 11 million families considered themselves mahirap or poor.  

Classes D and E constitute about 14,500,000 households across the country. They work as public transportation drivers, public school teachers, market vendors, security guards, fishermen, and farmers.  


Pulse Asia: Good ratings maintained

Based on the Pulse Asia surveys, classes D and E never gave Duterte approval and trust ratings below 70% throughout the first half of his presidency.  

Pulse Asia surveys are based on a sample of 1,200 representative adults 18 years and above, with a ±3% error margin and 95% confidence at the national level.  

The graph below shows the approval ratings  Duterte obtained from classes D and E, based on 11 surveys of Pulse Asia from September 2016 to March 2019. 

After assuming power in June 2016, Duterte started with an 86% approval rating from class D and 88% from class E.

Though the numbers slightly dipped in the two quarterly surveys that followed, he was able to stay above 75% for the next 5 quarters.

His lowest approval rating from class D happened in September 2018, 74% – a significant 13-percentage point drop. In the days leading up to the survey, the Philippines recorded its highest inflation rate in 9 years. 

Inflation is a gut issue, according to Pulse Asia research director Ana Maria Tabunda, and it’s sure to easily affect survey results.  

Duterte’s lowest approval rating from the poorest class E was in March 2017 at 77%, an 8-percentage point drop from the previous survey. Around this time, many political events rocked the country.

In February 2017, opposition Senator Leila de Lima surrendered to police over what she called “trumped-up” drug charges filed against her by the justice department. 

A month later, in a Senate hearing, retired cop Arturo Lascañas claimed to have been among the founding members of the notorious Davao Death Squad in Davao City, allegedly ordered by then-Davao mayor Duterte to execute crime suspects and personal foes. 

In the period, Duterte also threatened to declare martial law in Mindanao should violence in the region escalate. 

But though these events coincided with his lowest rating for class E, the steepest drop was in September 2018, when his approval rating fell by 10 percentage points to 81%  from 91% in June 2018. This was also due to high inflation.

Polarized over drug war

But even with these downward turns, the numbers show that Duterte was able to bounce back.

Duterte has been able to maintain good approval ratings, especially among the poorest of the population, mostly because of fulfilled – or at least perceived-to-be-fulfilled – promises, according to Tabunda. Chief among these is his promise to address the drug problem.

The war on drugs is the Duterte administration’s signature program, and true to Duterte’s word, he made sure it began the moment he was sworn in as president. What started as a campaign promise that perhaps others did not take seriously at first swiftly became a reality.

First finding its epicenter in the slums of Metro Manila, the war on drugs continues to happen beyond the capital. 

Tabunda said that the poor remain “really polarized and conflicted” about the drug war.

It is true that their kin and neighbors in the slums have been victimized by the killings, but prior to Duterte’s purge, they themselves were victims of drug-linked kin and neighbors, she said.

“The family of a drug addict is the first victim of the violence [of both the drug war or the drug trade],” Tabunda said. The truth is, their communities have become safer and they are thankful for it, said Tabunda.

But while the drug war is certainly the most controversial program of the Duterte administration, dominating local and international news for months after the Duterte administration took power, it is just one of the chief concerns of poor.

The most important thing for them, said Tabunda, is always putting food on their tables.

“Education, health, inflation, jobs, suweldo (pay), [these] are their concerns,” Tabunda said. (READ: The Philippine economy’s health under Duterte)

The Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) Act aims to address these problems. 

In April, Duterte signed into law Republic Act No. 11310 or the 4Ps Act, institutionalizing 4Ps as a permanent government program requiring regular appropriations from the Department of Social Welfare and Development budget.

Introduced during the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and continued under Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, 4Ps is a national poverty reduction program providing conditional cash transfer to poor households for a maximum of 7 years to improve health, nutrition, and education. It was also a source of good approval ratings for Aquino, as a survey commissioned by The Standard in 2015 showed.

SWS: Never below good

Duterte’s numbers also remain good in SWS surveys. His satisfaction ratings for classes D and E never strayed from SWS’ “good” mark. For both classes, Duterte’s ratings never went below +45. 

The graph below shows the satisfaction ratings of classes D and E from 11 SWS surveys from September 2016 to March 2019. 

SWS surveys are done using face-to-face interviews of either 1,200 or 1,500 adults 18 years and above, with sampling error margins of ±3% for national percentages and ±6% each for Metro Manila, Balance Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

At the start of his term, Duterte got an initial grade of very good for classes D (+68) and E (+62). He did better than his predecessor Aquino, who started with +66 and +57 from the classes D and E, respectively, during his opening quarter in Malacañang. 

SWS surveys on Duterte’s performance so far show that his lowest rating from class D is +50 happened in September 2018. As with Pulse Asia surveys, the figure shows that class D – around 11,500,000 households – reacted to the inflation felt during that quarter. 

His lowest class E rating was +46 in September 2017.

Around this time, the deaths of  Kian delos Santos, Carl Arnaiz, and Reynaldo de Guzman – teen victims of the drug war – were all over the news. Duterte’s rating dipped from “very good” to “good.”

But he was quickly able to recover with a 20-point increase in the next quarter – a significant increase, as SWS pegs significant changes at 20 points. 

Mangahas cited programs such as the conditional cash transfer (CCT) scheme of 4Ps to show why Duterte’s satisfaction rating among the poor remains at an impressive level.

“The CCT is a very good program and it shows that his administration is not fooling around,” he said. 

What’s Duterte’s Mamasapano?

Mangahas also said that Duterte has not yet been through a major crisis.

“[Fidel] Ramos had the Flor Contemplacion tragedy and the rice crisis in 1995…[Joseph Estrada] had jueteng…[Noynoy Aquino] had Mamasapano,” he said. 

The impact of the President’s response to the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in Recto Bank will not be known until the next survey results come out, likely in July. 

Even then, political events like these do not alarm the poor very much, according to Mangahas.

For them, issues like health and education are still the priority.

Flor Contemplacion was an overseas Filipino worker hanged in Singapore on March 17, 1995, after allegedly killing a fellow OFW and the OFW’s ward. The Ramos administration took a beating from this. That same year, it also had to deal with a rice crisis.

The Estrada administration had the jueteng issue two years into the pro-masa candidate’s term. He was accused of receiving millions of pesos from illegal jueteng operations. He would later be impeached and replaced by Arroyo. 

In January 2015, then-president Aquino came under fire after 44 elite cops were killed in a misencounter with members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao. The police’s Board of Inquiry later found that Aquino committed lapses in judgment during the planning of the operation.

While Duterte had to deal with the Marawi siege of 2017, he was able to recover after it, according to Mangahas. He offered an explanation: “[During] conflict, people rally around their leader. They don’t want to be seen as not loyal.” 

SWS figures from the March 2019 survey show that Duterte got a +72 rating for class D and +68 for class E – both still very good, proof that the poor consider the administration to be attentive to “bread and butter” issues.

Not just the poor

Duterte’s populist policies endear him to millions of Filipinos who are simply getting by.

Among them was his decision to close Boracay. Moves like this continue to show the public that Duterte is committed to fast action, even without regard for rules at times.  

“And it’s not just the poor, all classes like this populist President,” said La Viña.

Much has been written about Duterte’s populism – his victory from the backdoor, his promises of unhesitating action against crime and corruption, his foul mouth and aggressive behavior.

Each time he did something that displeased his base, he was able to bounce back. Will we be seeing the same pattern in the next 3 years? – Rappler.com


See more of Rappler coverage – news, in-depth stories, analysis, videos, and podcasts – on Duterte’s halfway mark here.

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