As pandemic persists, are Filipinos still satisfied with Duterte?

Loreben Tuquero

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Deteriorating quality of life due to COVID-19, which triggered a steep rise in pessimism among Filipinos, could affect satisfaction over the President's performance


  • President Rodrigo Duterte continued to gain high satisfaction, approval, and trust ratings in the first half of his 4th year in office. However, it has yet to be seen if that will change as COVID-19 continues to plague the country.
  • The May 2020 Social Weather Stations’ mobile survey found that Filipinos’ net optimism nosedived, and a record-high percentage of Filipinos say their quality of life got worse. Experts say this does not bode well for the administration.
  • One study found that herd behavior and access to information may be linked to presidential satisfaction. 
  • According to experts, public favor for the Duterte administration may run out as Filipinos take the brunt of the oncoming economic recession. 

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte continued to gain high ratings in the first half of his 4th year in office, finishing 2019 with a record-high net satisfaction rating. 

Growing pessimism due to the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent inadequacy of the government’s response, however, could take away the public favor he has sustained in the earlier years of his term. 

From 44% in December 2019, net personal optimism plummeted to the negative levels in May 2020, two months into the lockdown.

However, no on ground surveys measuring satisfaction, approval, and trust ratings have been conducted yet for the entire 2020. 

In COVID-19 era, Filipinos lose optimism

While the SWS has not released any presidential satisfaction rating survey for 2020 or during the coronavirus pandemic, it conducted a “Covid-19 Mobile Survey” on May 4 to 10, making use of mobile phone and computer-assisted telephone interviewing to survey over 4,000 working-age Filipinos across the country.

What did the survey reveal? For one, 83% said their quality of life got worse – labeled “losers” by SWS – while only 6% were “gainers” or said that their quality of life got better.

These were a record high and an all-time low, respectively, across 135 SWS surveys in 37 years. The resulting net gainers score of -78 was the “worst in survey history,” plunging from +18 in December 2019. 

It was also a disruption in a 5-year positive trend. SWS said that the 19 positive scores between March 2015 and December 2019 accounted for 90% of all positive scores recorded, since net gainers scores have “very often” been negative.


Another finding from the mobile survey was that 43% of working-age Filipinos expected their quality of life to worsen while 24% expected it to improve in the next 12 months, resulting in a net optimism score of -18. The net optimism score plummeted from +44 in December 2019.

This beat negative scores during periods of political unrest in the late Marcos administration, the impeachment crisis of former president Joseph Estrada, and the contentious 2004 election of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.


University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) political science professor Aries Arugay said that these findings “do not look good for the country,” because even though Filipinos will more often than not say that they are not in a good situation, they will always say that they are optimistic about their future. However, that changed during the pandemic.

According to Arugay, the rise in pessimism may mean that the tolerance accorded to Duterte by Filipinos may run out, since the base that is their economic and material well-being has been taken away.

[Kung] nagugutom ka, kung wala kang trabaho, kung hindi ka nabibigyan ng ayuda, kung nahihirapan ka pumunta sa work, kung kailangan mong maglakad nang 30 minutes to one hour kasi nga wala nang jeep, will you still tolerate the administration?” Arugay said in a phone interview.

(If you are hungry, if you are jobless, if you are not being given subsidy, if you find it difficult to go to work, if you need to walk 30 minutes to one hour because there are no jeeps, will you still tolerate the administration?)

Before the pandemic, ratings remained high

The Third Quarter 2019 Social Weather Stations (SWS) Survey found a net satisfaction rating of 65% which was classified as “very good.” Then, in December 2019, Duterte got a net satisfaction rating of +72, a new personal record that surpassed the June 2019 record of +68. 


In terms of approval and trust, Duterte continued to gain high approval and trust ratings in the first half of his 4th year in office. Duterte got a 78% approval rate for September 2019, 7 points lower than the 85% rate registered in the June 2019 survey. Meanwhile, the December 2019 Pulse Asia survey revealed that Duterte’s approval and trust ratings surged despite the country’s controversial hosting of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.


An exception to the trend

More than just enjoying high ratings, Duterte also fared better than previous presidents. Arugay pointed out that other presidents’ ratings would plateau and dip in the second half of their term. Duterte proved to be an exception to the trend, he said.


He said that Filipinos accord Duterte tolerance because their economic well-being has not been dramatically affected. “I think Filipinos [are giving him] some slack, some leeway because by now they have already acclimatized or they have adapted to the way he runs things,” Arugay said.

He also said that Duterte has the ability to distance and insulate himself from the poor performance of those who work under him, evading liability from what should be command responsibility.

Thus, Filipinos shift the blame to other government officials. Issues that dominated the media during the Pulse Asia September 2019 survey period included the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law controversy, a polio outbreak, the death of a Philippine Military Academy cadet due to hazing, and the African swine fever (ASF) outbreak, among others.

Pulse Asia research director Ana Maria Tabunda said most Filipinos did not hold Duterte accountable for corruption allegations leveled against lower ranking officials. “This is the case in both the GCTA and SEA Games issues,” Tabunda said in an email interview. (READ: Multi-billion SEA Games 2019 fund follows Cayetano where he goes)

Meanwhile, UPD political science associate professor Rogelio Alicor Panao said in another email interview that Duterte’s baffling popularity may be because he is “running things in a way that satisfies the preference of, at the very least, the Filipino median voter.”

This was reflected in SWS’ latest polls on the performance of the national administration. In September 2019, the administration gained a “very good” net satisfaction rating of 67 for its performance, while in December 2019, it acquired an “excellent” net satisfaction rating of 73.

For the 16 specific performance subjects rated, the net satisfaction ratings ranged from “neutral” to “very good” considering both quarters.

Herd behavior, access to information may be linked to presidential satisfaction

Arugay argued that before the pandemic, Filipinos’ economic and material conditions had not dramatically changed for the worse. Thus they could still accord Duterte high tolerance despite multiple controversies. (READ: Duterte and the poor: What the surveys say)

However, other evidence may point to something different. The SWS’ December 2019 survey found that 54% of families considered themselves poor, an increase from 42% in September 2019 and the highest since September 2014.

Ateneo de Manila development studies assistant professor Leslie Lopez said this may be due to the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Act, the law that reduced personal income taxes but increased those on cars, tobacco, sugar-sweetened beverages, and fuel. (READ: Expect increase in poverty as COVID-19 ushers in Duterte’s 4th year)

A working paper written in January 2020 by Tristan Canare of the Asian Institute of Management, Ateneo School of Government (ASoG) Dean Ronald Mendoza, Leo Jaminola, and Jurel Yap of ASoG revealed that macroeconomic variables like inflation and unemployment rate show weak or contrary relationships between presidential net satisfaction and subjective personal evaluations.

Panao echoed this finding, claiming that in the Philippines, personal assessment of the economy is found to correlate with overall public evaluation of the President. He said that while an issue like the ASF outbreak, in particular, had economic implications, they were not at a level that “impacts the majority’s personal outlook on the economy.”

On the other hand, using a commissioned survey among 1,200 low-income class registered voters in the National Capital Region, the authors of the study found evidence of “herd behavior,” meaning “individual perceptions of the group’s satisfaction appeared to be linked to their own answer on satisfaction.”

The study also revealed findings that suggest those who were satisfied with Duterte’s performance also generally have access to sources of news and information. However, the authors noted that this did not mean they were spared from disinformation.

The study found only partial evidence that presidential support may be affected by fake news. However, the authors said that these results do not discount the risks of false information, since other studies revealed citizens may mistrust true stories and consider them as false, and vice versa. The authors also pointed out that the respondents may be more susceptible to types of fake news that relate more directly to their context. 

For one, at the height of reports on logistical blunders during the SEA Games, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Kabayan Representative Ron Salo amplified “unacceptable” narratives against the media. These were then immediately echoed and perpetuated by government supporters. (READ: Government offensive: Info operations attack media to manage SEA Games PR crisis)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Filipinos have been seen fighting back Duterte supporters online. After Duterte ordered police and military to “shoot dead” quarantine violators if they think their life is in danger, angry citizens called for his ouster on social media platforms, overpowering the administration’s supporters who actively launch campaigns against critics and spin the government’s failures. 

The #OustDuterteNow hashtag was not just used by the Philippine opposition and activists, but also by people involved in interest groups such as K-pop, celebrity fan groups, LGBT groups, and others. Data revealed that the rise of the hashtag was organic with little signs of manipulation or coordination, indicating an increase in negative public sentiment against the Duterte administration’s coronavirus response. (READ: Coronavirus response: Online outrage drowns out Duterte propaganda machine)

Just recently, after the ABS-CBN shutdown, celebrity fan groups launched a massive campaign to block and report trolls. (READ: Propaganda machine meets its match: Celebrity fandoms)

Will public approval for Duterte be sustained after coronavirus?

Arugay believes Duterte has been lucky during his first 4 years, but the coronavirus outbreak is a “litmus test” for how public perception of his administration’s performance will hold up. (READ: Pandemic unravels Duterte’s 2016 promise of decisive leadership)

While SWS and Pulse Asia have not yet conducted presidential satisfaction, approval, and trust surveys during the pandemic, indicators of Filipinos’ worsening status are in full view.

“There is no substitute for a rigorously conducted poll that is methodologically sound… However, I don’t think we need polls to see [when] certain facts are very glaring – people’s unemployment, the repatriation of OFWS, kasi may multiplier effect ‘yan eh (because that has a multiplier effect),” Arugay said.

Panao said that in lieu of surveys, we can consider “sentiment-based indices” such as the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ business outlook and consumer expectation surveys. For instance, he said that the business outlook dropped to 22.3 in the first quarter of 2020 from 40.2 in the last quarter of 2019. The decline was due to the negative effects of the coronavirus and ASF outbreaks, the Taal volcano eruption, and the travel ban, among others.

Meanwhile, the overall consumer expectation also declined marginally to 1.26% in the first quarter of 2020 from 1.31% in the last quarter of 2019. The positive sentiment was mitigated by concerns on faster increase in prices of goods, low income, and the coronavirus outbreak, among others. (READ: Coronavirus drives Philippines toward recession as Duterte’s 4th year ends)

However, Panao noted that these covered only the first quarter of the year. “Recently, we see businesses and shops closing for good as the number of COVID cases escalates. I do not think these are optimistic prospects,” Panao said.

Meanwhile, Panao believes government advisers know that economic conditions influence public esteem for the President. “This is probably why current measures in response to the crisis are towards opening the economy or, at least, facilitating economic activities even as our COVID curve sees no sign of flattening,” he said. But Panao also said that he “would not be surprised” if the President’s ratings dip once surveys are conducted.

Tabunda said that blame for shortcomings in pandemic response may be placed on lower-ranking national officials and government units, while issues such as the passage of the anti-terror bill may not be considered an urgent national issue since many Filipinos are grappling with survival. 

While Arugay deems political issues like democracy and the rule of law as middle and upper-class issues, he said that the loss of livelihood may shift opinions.

“[People] who are die-hard Duterte supporters will be dissonant and still support the President despite all these political issues. Kaya lang, ang sabi ko nga, eh pag kabuhayan na ang involved, livelihood na, baka iba na ‘yung tugtugin (However, as I said, once livelihood is involved, that may change the tune),” Arugay said.

In particular, Arugay observed that local governments are not being given direction, and the government is “decentering” the issue at hand, making time for other things like the ABS-CBN shutdown, the anti-terror bill, a probe into J&T Express, and others.

“Yes you can distract Filipinos, but you can only distract [them] so much. Sooner or later this administration might have to face the music, and really, be judged according to its ability to help Filipinos, particularly to do good on its promise of tapang and malasakit (courage and compassion),” Arugay said. – 

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Loreben Tuquero

Loreben Tuquero is a researcher-writer for Rappler. Before transferring to Rappler's Research team, she covered transportation, Quezon City, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government as a reporter. She graduated with a communication degree from the Ateneo de Manila University.