[OPINION] Is it downhill for Duterte?

Joel Rocamora

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[OPINION] Is it downhill for Duterte?
Popularity is important for winning elections and for keeping opponents at bay, but to govern, to implement policies and programs, you need organized support

Recent approval rating surveys are contradictory. SWS  says Duterte’s numbers are going down, Pulse Asia says they remain high. We cannot, of course, predict where Duterte’s approval ratings will go. We might as well read tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. 

In general, I don’t think approval rating surveys are as important as people think. But I find one recent survey intriguing. 

An SWS survey at the end of June says that “…64% of Filipinos think Duterte’s ‘cursing’ the chief and members of the United Nations Human Rights Council is vulgar (bastos).” Respondents were also asked about what they thought of Duterte’s assertion that priests were “no better than him” and that “some priests have two wives,” and his controversial kiss on the lips of a married Filipina in South Korea. A majority also found these bastos. 

Even more interesting, people who find Duterte “bastos” are less satisfied with his performance, the survey found. Respondents who said they found the 3 acts vulgar gave him a net satisfaction rating of “moderate,” which corresponds to a net rating of +10 to +29. 

This is in contrast to the “excellent” rating he got from respondents who did not find his acts vulgar.” 

Can we assume then that since Duterte is not likely to be any less bastos in the coming months, his satisfaction rating is likely to go down?

Bastos has more resonance in Filipino culture than “vulgar.” Bastos refers to more than just “manners,” it spills over into morals. 

This is crucial because apart from a few key indicators, people do not assess Duterte’s policies and programs. They voted for him, he remains popular, because they like him “as a person.” But this connection will be eroded by moral judgments. 

Duterte’s tough guy image requires being perceived as only “medyo bastos”, a bit “pilyo.” But this survey goes beyond “medyo.” Duterte is full-throated, unmitigated bastos.

Organized base

It is difficult to say if indeed Duterte has crested, if he is now going downhill. Measuring popularity has scientific basis; predicting popularity is reading tea leaves.

Popularity is important for winning elections and for keeping opponents at bay, but to govern, to implement policies and programs, you need organized support. This has measurable manifestations. Duterte never had significant organized support. 

PDP Laban never had solid, organized structures and membership, so we can’t say it is falling apart. It had accretions of support, much like barnacles, which are slowly falling off. 

The erosion of PDP began in February when presidential daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte Carpio (Inday Sara) formed Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP, or Alliance for Change), bringing together governors of Davao provinces and Compostela Valley. . 

The new formation brought in two political enemies of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, Davao Del Norte Governor Antonio Del Rosario and Congressman Tony Floirendo, provoking Alvarez to attack the group. This, in turn, provoked an intemperate response from Mayor Sara, as it turned out a few months later, with severe consequences for Alvarez. 

The next step was the replacement of Senator Koko Pimentel by Senator Tito Sotto as Senate President in May. Since Senator Sotto did his best to calm partisan dynamics in the Senate, this was not perceived as very significant. What tilted the balance was the dramatic coup against Alvarez during the SONA, in full view of a national TV audience. Mayor Sara was reported to be a major instigator of the coup. 

Although congressional shenanigans embarrassed the President, these developments did not directly affect the Dutertes. It was a body blow to the PDP. Losing leadership of the two legislative bodies made the PDP look weak. 

Sure enough, proverbial rats began to abandon ship. New Majority Floor Leader Camarines Sur 1st District Representative Nonoy Andaya, himself a PDP member, said congressmen were looking to move to other parties, looking for “different options for the upcoming elections.” 

Adding insult to injury, a rump PDP national assembly organized by what Senator Pimentel called “rogue members” expelled Pimentel and Alvarez from the party leadership. Although Pimentel belittled the threat from the group, Presidential Assistant Bong Go blew a bit of wind on rebel sails by saying the President would unify the “two PDP factions.” 

The erosion of ruling parties has been part of party politics going back decades. What is striking is that it is happening even before the mid-point of the Duterte regime.

It remains to be seen whether these trends will be “confirmed” by results in the May 2019 elections. What must be disappointing to regime partisans is that other base-building efforts have been signal failures.

Evasco and rice policy

In many democracies, following political party dynamics is the most important way to identify trends. It is more difficult in the Duterte regime because you have to follow factions and their links to Duterte family members, old time assistants, law school classmates. 

Following what has happened to Cabinet Secretary Leoncio “Jun” Evasco, early on a key player in the regime, will enable us to track factional dynamics and the fate of regime efforts to build a non-party organized base. 

Evasco was Duterte’s campaign manager in 2016, and chief of staff when Duterte was Davao mayor. Duterte used Evasco’s links with national democrats to organize a modus vivendi with national democrats in Davao. During the 2016 campaign, Evasco used non-National Democratic Left groups as a base for the campaign. After Duterte’s victory, Evasco worked on forming a non-party base for the regime, the Kilos Pagbabago (KP).

On the face of it, Evasco had a powerful base in the new administration, having been assigned to supervise twelve separate agencies. As it turned out, it was precisely this assignment that hampered Evasco’s efforts at forming KP chapters. Complicated maneuvers by factions in the regime on rice policy shows how these dynamics have affected crucial public policy. It also explains why Evasco’s defeat in these battles prevented KP from getting off the ground.

Evasco’s problems at NFA started in April 2017 when NFA manager Jason Aquino refused to implement an NFA council decision to extend the delivery date of private imports. Aquino reportedly preferred government-to-government (G2G) importation. NFA council members oppose G2G importation because the rice itself, delivery and other charges are costlier, threatening to increase the gargantuan NFA debt. G2G importation have, in the past, been a major source of corruption.

After an initial setback when Duterte backed Aquino with the support of Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol and Bong Go, Evasco and the NFA Council won the first round.

In mid-May, Evasco announced that rice importation would be through the private sector, G2P. But by the end of the year, prices began to go up. In February 2018, one of the main reasons came out, the NFA had stopped supplying retailers. 

Evasco and the NFA Council, supported by DBM Secretary Diokno and some senators, blamed NFA manager Aquino for the spike in prices not just by allowing NFA rice stocks to get depleted, but subsequently announcing it to the public. Evasco submitted a memo to Duterte questioning why NFA rice meant for Region VIII were sold to chosen Bulacan rice traders at a loss. Senators threatened investigations on NFA mismanagement.

Rice policy is crucial for maintaining regime support among the poor. By July 2018, rice prices have been going up for six months. NFA ran out of subsidized rice – the first time this has happened since NFA’s creation in 1972, or in nearly 50 years. Subsidized NFA rice is a vital part of the diet of the poor. It constitutes some nine percent of the Consumer Price Index. 

The ‘Pulong’ Duterte factor

Duterte’s response this time has been to fully support Jason Aquino and to allow massive G2G imports. In mid-July NFA announced plans to import another 500,000 metric tons, bringing 2018 importation to 1 million tons. Paying for this will add some P24 billion to NFA debt. Adding insult to injury, Duterte removed Evasco from the NFA council. 

Duterte’s support for Aquino and the removal of Evasco from the NFA does not make sense from a public policy perspective. It makes even less sense if you look at it from Duterte’s announced support for turning over rice importation completely to the private sector after the passage of the rice tariff bill. 

Neither does it make sense from what is known publicly about the main factions fighting over rice policy. Evasco is supported by Duterte’s economic managers, all present in the NFA council. Aquino is supported by DA secretary Piñol and Bong Go, on the face of it, not strong enough to defeat the Evasco faction. 

An explanation, based on unconfirmed reports, goes back to Davao like much of what happens under the Duterte regime. Davao business sources believe that Duterte son, Pulong Duterte controlled rice smuggling when his father was mayor. When his father became president, he succeeded in getting Faeldon appointed Customs Commissioner, extending his control nationally. 

Jason Aquino is part of the Faeldon group of military rebels sheltered by the Dutertes. With control over NFA importation, rice smuggling becomes unnecessary. Other, more lucrative opportunities for profit are possible. By buying forward contracts for later delivery, then announcing a  huge government purchase which will push prices up since the Philippines is the biggest buyer of rice in the international market, whoever has these forward contracts will make a killing.

Believable? I can’t prove it. But it makes sense. – Rappler.com


Joel Rocamora is a political analyst and a seasoned civil society leader. An activist-scholar, he finished his PhD in Politics, Asian Studies, and International Relations in Cornell University, and had been the head of the Institute for Popular Democracy, the Transnational Institute, the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, and member to a number of non-governmental organizations. From the parliament of the streets, he crossed over to the government and joined Aquino’s Cabinet as the Lead Convenor of the National Anti-Poverty Commission.




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