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Duterte's honeymoon is far from over

Approval ratings soar as Philippine president continues violent crackdown on drugs

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President Rodrigo Duterte speaks in front of housewives and mothers, that participate in the anti-illegal drugs campaign of the provincial government at Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga, Philippines on Dec.22.   © Reuters

MANILA -- Six months after becoming president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte continues to enjoy widespread popularity, with approval ratings topping 70%.

The economy has been going strong under Duterte, and his violent crackdown on drug-related crimes, while controversial overseas, has also garnered him much domestic support.

But diplomacy may prove more of a challenge for the president, who is known for making outrageous comments about other leaders. In 2017, the Philippines is set to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The test for Duterte will be to demonstrate as strong a leadership in the regional alliance as he does at home.

Economic tailwind

A survey conducted by Philippine research company Social Weather Stations showed that Duterte's approval rating stood at 77% in early December, up 1 percentage point from the previous survey in September.

One of the reasons for his continued popularity is the upbeat economy. "The Philippines remains as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia today, faster than China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia," Ernesto Pernia, socioeconomic planning secretary and director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority, said at a news conference in mid-December. "With 7% GDP growth in the first three quarters, we are sure to achieve our target of 6-7% growth for the whole of 2016."

The economy expanded 7.1% in real terms on the year in the July-September quarter, marking the sixth straight quarter of growth and the second-fastest quarterly expansion since the 7.5% logged in April-June 2013.

A major force behind this growth is robust consumer spending, which accounts for about 70% of the country's gross domestic product. About 10% of the population in the Philippines is estimated to work abroad, and remittances from these workers help fuel domestic spending. According to the Philippine central bank, foreign currency transfers to the country totaled $22.1 billion in the January-October period of 2016, up 4% from a year earlier, and are expected to set a new record for the full year.

The sharp increase in transfers is due partly to the Philippine peso's tumble against the dollar. Expectations that U.S. interest rates will start rising more rapidly has led to the peso being sold. A weak peso boosts the value of foreign currency-denominated remittances when converted into the peso, which tends to push up transfers from overseas.

A weak peso also helps local companies, such as call centers, that contract outsourcing operations from foreign businesses.

Remittances are a basic pillar of the Philippine economy. The large amount of money from overseas covers the trade deficit and allows the country to maintain a current-account surplus.

Duterte, soon after he was sworn in as the president of the Philippines in June 2016, said he intended to continue the basic economic policies of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino. He is set to unveil a midterm plan for the economy through 2022 at the beginning of 2017. The government is expected to focus spending on infrastructure construction, promote regional development and step up efforts to attract foreign manufacturers, which would help expand exports.

Crime crackdown

Another government policy that has met with voter approval is the crackdown on drugs and drug-related crimes. Duterte's approach to law and order, which is tantamount to approving extrajudicial killings, has come under fire from the U.S. and Europe. Duterte responded angrily to such criticism, even telling U.S. President Barack Obama to "go to hell." A remark in mid-December caused an even bigger stir than his verbal insults: Duterte said he has killed suspects himself.

"I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys that if I can do it, why can't you?" Duterte said at a meeting with business leaders in the presidential palace in Manila. He said that when he was mayor of Davao, in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, he used to go around the city on a motorcycle shooting suspects dead. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein issued a statement calling on Philippine authorities to open an investigation into killings by Duterte.

According to Philippine police, 6,173 people suspected of being involved in drug-related crimes were killed between July 1 and Dec. 15, one-third of them during police operations.

There is growing public concern about aggressive police tactics, particularly that their family or other bystanders might find themselves caught up in a dangerous situation. Still, in an opinion poll released by Social Weather Stations in mid-December, more than 80% of respondents said they were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the administration's anti-drug campaign.

Changing relations

The Philippines' diplomatic policy has changed dramatically. The Aquino administration confronted China over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. In contrast, Duterte has not only refrained from criticizing Beijing, he has emphasized the importance of taking advantage of Chinese aid and investment. In October, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and agreed to improve bilateral relationships. He also succeeded in securing hefty financial support from China. Philippine fisherman have since been able to resume fishing around the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea with no interference from Chinese vessels.

"I do not need your assistance. Four hundred million? China is going to release to me 50 billion. Go home, I do not need your aid," Duterte said in a speech in mid-December. He was referring to the decision by Millennium Challenge Corp., an independent U.S. foreign aid agency, to suspend $400 million in aid over concerns about Duterte's drug war.

Duterte has also been approaching Russia. In mid-November, he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he calls his "hero," on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru. "I have been looking for this moment to meet you Mr. President, not only because you represent a great country but [because] of your leadership, too," he told Putin.

Shortly before that, Duterte said, "You know, if China and Russia would decide to create a new order, I will be the first to join." In December, he sent Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to Russia and started negotiations to procure military equipment from the country.

Duterte is known for his outrageous comments about other top leaders. In another December opinion poll, 51% of respondents said they think Duterte's remarks will have a negative effect on relationships with other countries. Given that most of his harsh words are directed at the U.S. and Europe, these respondents were likely concerned about strained relations mainly with those powers.

Duterte clearly did not get on well with Obama, who emphasizes the importance of human rights and democratic principles. How well he will work with President-elect Donald Trump remains to be seen. In a phone call in early December, Duterte and Trump encouraged each other to visit their respective countries.

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