High Inflation, Disappointment with China Sink Duterte’s Poll Numbers

Pressure on Duterte as Philippine inflation jumps
AFP/NOEL CELIS

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte survived many scandals with his poll numbers largely intact, but support for the seemingly unsinkable strongman is finally waning, polls showed on Monday.

The Wall Street Journal noted Duterte’s personal approval ratings largely recovered after a nasty spat with the Catholic Church, but the Duterte administration slipped substantially and has not recovered the eight points of public support it lost. In retrospect, it appears growing public concerns about inflation picked up where unease about Dutetre’s threats to “kick the asses” of Catholic bishops left off:

Inflation is becoming a global concern as central banks slowly unwind cheap-money policies that have been in place for a decade. The Philippines central bank has raised interest rates four times this year.

Economists said that while economic growth in the Philippines remains strong, inflation has come up faster than expected; this year’s monthly average rate has been 5%, compared with 2.9% in 2017. After playing down the issue, the government is now being forced to act.

“It’s certainly giving policymakers a bit of worry in terms of impact on the ground,” Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Bank in Singapore, said Monday.

Price increases from transport to food and beverages have been especially hard on the rural population, for whom life’s staples are in short supply. A government tax overhaul and rice shortages have exacerbated the effect.

The WSJ mentions a sense of disappointment among Filipinos that Duterte’s promises of big-money Chinese investment have not come true. Bloomberg News noted in July that China has delivered very little of the $24 billion in investment promised, especially galling for Duterte’s electorate because he was outspoken about pivoting away from the United States and Europe to pursue Chinese money. Beijing has thus far reaped far more rewards from this pivot than Manila, especially in terms of lucrative South China Sea territorial rights.

Forbes recalled in September that China was supposed to help Duterte clean up the infamously corrupt political system of the Philippines, but instead Chinese media is running editorials blaming the “volatile political culture” of the Philippines for Duterte’s troubles.

Duterte’s notoriously bloody war on drugs has not delivered the clean streets he promised, although he evidently still gets a lot of credit for taking the drug problem seriously. Polling data published on Monday found Duterte’s drug war still enjoys 78 percent support from the public, although 96 percent said more efforts should be made to take the suspects alive.

Duterte made a public promise of honest elections in 2019 on Monday, calling on the police, armed forces, and government officials “not to indulge in partisan politics.” The promise was seen as necessary in part because the president’s aide Christopher “Bong” Go is running for the Senate.

“I announce to the country now that we make a pledge: there will be an election and it will be an honest one,” Duterte declared. “Nobody but nobody can use government resources, not even Bong.”

The Council on Foreign Relations theorized on Monday that Duterte will weather his current political turbulence – unless he makes good on his periodic promises to retire in exhaustion or quit in a fit of pique – because he established a template for authoritarian populist power that is spreading around the world, as exemplified by Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

The key point in the CFR’s analysis is that “autocratic-leaning populists often prove so politically enduring that they can make multiple comebacks from seeming political death” because they are given so much credit for sincerity, as with Duterte and his drug war.

The weak link in populist political armor would be something like rising inflation, or as the CFR suggests, the “increasingly high price of rice” – in other words, pocketbook issues where the personal charisma and perceived sincerity of the leader cannot overcome the popular sense that things just aren’t working they way they should be.

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