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A pandemic-induced economic downturn threatens to become a bigger issue for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte than his campaign against crime and drugs. © Nikkei montage/Source photos by Reuters
Asia Insight

Duterte's strongman popularity at risk from COVID-19 recession

Succession plans threatened as president muzzles dissent amid pandemic

CLIFF VENZON, Nikkei staff writer | Philippines

MANILA -- The notorious Baseco Compound in the port district of Manila has been a hot spot in President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war. Some suspects are lucky and get arrested. Those less so end up dead, killed in police raids or by unknown gunmen.

But one weekend in early July, the streets and alleys of the dense slum of 60,000 people were transformed into what seemed a peaceful ghost town after the Manila city government imposed a two-day "hard lockdown."

"Right now, our priority is the survival of the residents here," local official Rey Campanera told the Nikkei Asian Review. While he said that only eight coronavirus cases have been reported in the barangay, or village, nearly all residents have relied on cash aid after losing their jobs in retail, transportation and construction.

"But until when can the government sustain the cash assistance?" Campanera said. "That is the big question."

That is just one of many headaches for Duterte as a pandemic-induced economic downturn threatens to become a bigger issue than his campaign against crime and drugs which, while condemned internationally for its brutality, is popular in the country of more than 100 million people.

Despite enforcing one of the world's longest and strictest lockdowns, the number of coronavirus cases in the Philippines has surged to more than 56,000. The country also faces its worst recession in more than three decades. Record numbers have lost their jobs and gone hungry, threatening to fuel public anger at Duterte and hurt the popularity that his political allies have banked on for the 2022 presidential election.

Duterte is constitutionally limited to a six-year term, but analysts and political insiders believe his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, and Sen. Bong Go, his former personal aid, are being groomed as his potential successors. Neither, however, have said they will run in 2022. Nor has potential opposition hopeful Leni Robredo, the country's vice president who was elected separately from Duterte.

The Baseco village in Manila’s port district was put under a two-day “hard lockdown” in July. A drug war hotspot, residents now worry about economic survival. (Photo by Kimberly dela Cruz)

As the pandemic cripples the economy, Duterte has increasingly turned to strong-arm tactics that critics say are aimed at muzzling dissent. Among other moves, he has signed a contentious anti-terrorism law and shut down the nation's largest TV network.

Duterte won the 2016 election by pledging to eradicate crime. The 75-year-old's common man personality -- reinforced by frequent and often profane attacks on the elite -- has resonated with the general public. He has consistently enjoyed support ratings of more than 70% throughout his presidency.

"Nothing in his experience prepared him for this. The drug war is a construction... unlike COVID-19 which is really out there," said Jean Franco, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. "COVID-19 is detached from his image as tough law enforcement guy."

In a prerecorded speech aired in the early hours of July 8, Duterte appealed again for patience, saying that he cannot follow the "devil may care attitude" of U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro -- maverick political figures with whom he has sometimes been generally compared -- in opening up their economies despite rising coronavirus fatalities.

"We cannot afford to gamble. We are a poor country and we cannot afford pandemonium," Duterte said. "If you open the entire Philippines and thousands upon thousands of new cases happen, then we are in deep shit."

But Duterte has been criticized for not initially acting fast enough to prevent the spread of the virus. After playing it down in January, he declared a state of emergency and locked down most of the country in mid-March. He enlisted former military generals to lead the country's coronavirus task force, deployed soldiers to enforce community quarantines and ordered the police to "shoot" violators.

Still, as the economy partially reopened in June, coronavirus cases climbed to 56,259 with 1,538 deaths as of July 12 from around 18,000 cases with 960 fatalities in May. The number of infections is the second highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, which has a population more than two times bigger.

While the government struggles to flatten the infection curve, the economic costs of lockdown have mounted. The government projects the economy will shrink 2% to 3.4% this year in what would be the sharpest contraction since the 1980s. A record 7.3 million people lost their jobs at the height of the measure in April, according to the state statistics agency. Nearly 79,000 overseas Filipino workers -- whose remittances are a vital source of national income -- have been repatriated, while an estimated 400,000 workers abroad are at risk of losing their jobs.

Meanwhile, the number of Filipinos who experienced hunger doubled to a record 4.2 million in May, according to a mobile phone poll by research organization Social Weather Stations, or SWS.

Jeepney drivers beg for money after losing their jobs in a national lockdown that restricted public transportation. (Photo by Kimberly dela Cruz)

In a possible warning sign for Duterte, public discontent appears to be rising as the government struggles to strike a balance between preserving the economy and controlling infections.

With public transport restricted, Jude Recio and other jeepney, or local minibus, drivers have been begging for money from passing motorists for months.

"We are really disappointed. Jeepney drivers supported him," Recio said. "If we protest, we get arrested. Maybe we wait for somebody tough and then we can join their protest."

Bob Herrera-Lim, Philippines-based analyst at global risk adviser Teneo, warned public dissatisfaction could become more apparent once cash payouts end, and utility bill and loan payment collections resume.

"When people start seeing that Vietnam, Thailand are starting to function more normally and have better outlooks than us, the disgruntlement will also increase," he said.

Durerte's economic team argues the economy is on track for a rebound next year on the back of strong fundamentals and low public debt level. But deadlock between them and Congress over the amount of fiscal stimulus have stalled immediate efforts to boost the economy. Congress, currently in recess, is due to resume later this month.

Filomeno Sta. Ana, co-founder of think tank Action for Economic Reforms, told Nikkei the government must first show the spread of the virus is under control. "If people think we are losing this battle, then people will not only have a problem of confidence in the economy, but even [the risk of] demoralization will sink in," he said.

Opinion polls back up such concern.

A survey by SWS in May showed that 43% percent of Filipinos expected their lives to worsen over the next 12 months, the highest in the survey's history.

Besides his hard line on drugs, economic growth has also helped Duterte keep public support intact. The poverty rate dropped to 16.7% in 2018 from 23.5% in 2015 as an aggressive infrastructure-building program boosted employment under a plan spearheaded by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, the president's childhood friend.

The strong economy, also stemming partly from reforms under his predecessors, has bankrolled populist measures such as raising salaries for police officers and soldiers, providing free irrigation for farmers, and free tuition at state colleges.

Before the pandemic, Duterte's net public satisfaction rating (measuring those satisfied minus those dissatisfied) was at a record high 72%. SWS has yet to release the latest survey, which will offer a clearer picture of the how the public sees his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

"I would be very surprised if his satisfaction rating does not decrease," UP's Franco said. "Mainly because the people who are affected by this pandemic are really the people who are also supporters of Duterte -- the ordinary Filipinos who walk to their workplaces, the informal workers, these are people who have gone through a lot of suffering in order to make ends meet."

Businesses like this convenience store shut down amid the lockdown. (Photo by Kimberly dela Cruz)

Unlike previous presidents who saw dwindling support in the second half of their terms, Duterte has avoided being perceived as a lame duck -- partly because of loyal supporters who see him as a decisive, no-nonsense leader.

Among them is Ludivico Acebo, whose footwear shop in Manila was shut for three months. "I think the lockdown was necessary. He did what needed to be done. I still support him," said Acebo, who received 8,000 pesos ($162) in cash aid form the government.

Sherwin Ona, who chairs the political science department at De La Salle University in Manila, said the president has presented himself as a strongman leader who is willing to take draconian measures to fight the spread of the virus. "He has framed it as an existential threat... which people can understand."

Amid it all, Duterte's government appears to have ramped up his clampdown on critics.

According to police data, more than 34,000 people were arrested for violating community quarantine rules from March to June, on top of those arrested for criticizing Duterte on social media. A vendor in Mindanao was jailed for calling Duterte "crazy" on Facebook, according to local media reports.

The government shut down the flagship channel and radio stations of ABS-CBN on May 5 after its 25-year franchise expired. Duterte had previously threatened to block the broadcaster's license for not airing his campaign ads in 2016. On July 10, Duterte's congressional allies, voting 70-11, affirmed the shutdown.

On July 3, Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act 2020, which gives authorities sweeping powers, including surveillance, warrantless arrest and detention of suspected terrorists for up to 24 days.

The legislation has been opposed by human rights activists and opposition lawmakers say the law targets critics of the government. "They are afraid of the growing discontent of the people with the government's incompetence and abuses during the global pandemic," said Sen. Risa Hontiveros.

The anti-terror law and ABS-CBN's closure have drawn rare pushback from business groups, including the prominent Makati Business Club, which previously avoided commenting on political issues under Duterte's rule. Churches and universities have also opposed the moves.

At his televised coronavirus briefing on July 8, Duterte defended the anti-terror bill, utilizing a trademark threat: "For the law-abiding citizens of this country, don't be scared if you are not a terrorist. But if you blow up churches and marketplace... if you kill people, I will really kill you."

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