The Truth About Duterte’s ‘Popularity’ in the Philippines
Image Credit: Flickr/Davao Today

The Truth About Duterte’s ‘Popularity’ in the Philippines


The one thing that seems to unite supporters and opponents of the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, is the fact that his popularity is sky-high and ought to be respected. And if you glance at the headlines of media accounts of the latest round of polls that have begun to be released this week, they would seem to confirm this, with the latest the Social Weather Station (SWS) survey showing public satisfaction with him at a respectable 76 percent.

In reality, the truth about Duterte’s popularity in the Philippines is actually far more complex. Put bluntly, his popularity actually isn’t that much higher relative to his predecessors, and his initially high ratings tell us little about the degree to which Filipinos support his controversial policies, how much political capital he has to expend on his ambitious agenda, and how his political fortunes may evolve over time.

Polling in the Philippines

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Before delving into the specifics, it is important to emphasize at the outset that polling in the Philippines suffers from any number of limitations. A primary one is the fact that we have a rather small sample size in terms of regular polling data. Duterte is only the sixth Philippine president since the era of dictator Ferdinand Marcos which ended in 1986, and, among the five presidents since – Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Benigno Aquino III – only four of them completed their full, single six-year terms (Estrada was overthrown following massive protests and subsequently imprisoned for corruption).

Furthermore, there are only a few notable polling outlets in the Philippines that seasoned observers truly trust when it comes to popularity ratings, unlike, for instance, the dizzying array of polls we see in the United States. In the Philippines, the most popularly cited ones are Pulse Asia and the SWS surveys, and even these two outlets sometimes word their questions differently, making it more difficult to compare them side by side. With this in mind, let’s look at Duterte’s popularity ratings and what we can say about them.

High, But Not That Much Higher

First, if we look closely at the data, while Duterte’s overall support may seem high, it is not that much higher than that of his predecessors such as to warrant the significance that many are according it.

Take for instance the recent 76 percent figure from SWS. Those who cite this like to emphasize that this is the highest ever rating in decades. What they leave out is the fact that this is just a mere five points higher than Aquino’s rating during the same period (71 percent), and a slightly higher seven points higher than Estrada (69 percent).

The same result is seen if one is to look at net satisfaction (percent satisfied minus percent dissatisfied), which SWS usually uses as a more meaningful indicator rather than just percent satisfied. Duterte’s net satisfaction rating is +64 percent, which is just four percent higher than the +60 percent that Benigno Aquino III and Joseph Estrada all got, and two percent lower than what Ramos had received at +66 percent. All of these fall under the category of “very good” under SWS’ classification system.

This is not unique to SWS data either. Take for instance the most frequently (and in most cases only) cited metric of Duterte’s popularity before this latest round of polls: his 91 percent trust rating from a Pulse Asia poll in July.

Those who cite this like to emphasize that this 91 percent figure is the highest ever rating recorded in that poll. What they leave out is that this 91 percent figure is just a little higher than the 87 percent that President Benigno Aquino had when he had just come into office. Again, dig a little deeper, and Duterte’s popularity no longer seems that impressive relatively speaking.

When I have mentioned this to some Duterte supporters, they shift the attention to vote totals or margins in the election as another marker of popularity (See: “Controversial Duterte Clinches Win in Philippine Election Amid Uncertainty“). But even Duterte’s figures here aren’t that remarkable by Philippine standards when put into proper perspective.

Take vote totals, for example. Duterte’s much-ballyhooed vote total of 15.8 million is only slightly higher than Aquino’s, which was at 15.2 million (about 3.7 percent). Furthermore, it would not be fair to attribute this slight increase to Duterte alone, since there was an increase in the population of voters as well as the overall turnout for the election (which was at a record 81.6 percent).

Furthermore, recall that, unlike in other countries where the winner needs to secure a majority of the vote, in the Philippines the one who simply wins the greatest share of the vote wins (indeed, no Philippine president since the Marcos era has won a majority). That ought to make us even more cautious about judging too much about what an entire country thinks about a president based on the percentage of the vote. In Duterte’s case for example, he only got 38.5 percent of the vote.

In terms of vote margin, Duterte did have a pretty significant margin of 6.2 million votes. But he is also behind on this score compared to Joseph Estrada, who recorded a 6.4 million vote total in 1998 which was the biggest majority in all races.

I could go on, but in short, Duterte’s popularity ratings are higher, but not that much higher than his predecessors to warrant any special attention.

Popularity vs. Policies

Second, it is important not to conflate Duterte’s popularity with support for his policies, which appears to be far lower and could in fact impact his popularity further down the line.

There is of course the general caveat that while Filipinos, as with other publics, may support the election of an outsider to signal their discontent with the status quo and their desire for something different, they may not necessarily also approve of all the things that he or she may do to accomplish that. But in Duterte’s case, that is additionally significant since some of the policies he has planned – like constitutional change and a federalist system of government or a peace process with communist rebels – are bold, risky, and not necessarily all that popular. Furthermore, some of his positions can easily feed into a narrative already forming in the Philippines of the emergency of another Marcos-style dictator bent on subverting democracy.

In Duterte’s case, this is already evident with some of the policies he is either pursuing or has said he will pursue. Take, for example, his proposal to change the constitution, which has long been a divisive issue in the country. Though Duterte considers this a key agenda item, according to a Pulse Asia poll conducted from July 2 to 8, only 37 percent of those surveyed said that they thought it should be amended now, with 44 percent saying it should not (29 percent said it could be in the future, 15 percent said it should never be) and 19 percent undecided.

Some point out that the silver lining for Duterte is that the percentage of those supporting this has increased compared to the last poll, and the undecided percentage has also lowered. But it is also true that Filipinos have been skeptical not just of constitutional change in general, but even when it is actually being attempted. The most recent demonstration of this was Aquino’s brief flirtation with charter reform in order to get past the single term limit imposed after Marcos. After he broached the idea in a television interview in August 2014, Pulse Asia found in a poll conducted from September 8 to September 15, 62 percent of respondents would not be in favor of Aquino running again if the constitution were amended. Unsurprisingly, Aquino did not follow through on this.

Another divisive position Duterte has taken is the decision to bury Marcos in a heroes’ cemetery. While Duterte was keen to push this, many saw this as opening old wounds that had barely healed. Data on this might be dated, but it nonetheless does confirm that this widely regarded tendency is indeed true. For example, an SWS survey back in March 2011 found an almost clear split in the answer to the question of whether Marcos deserved to be buried in the Heroes Cemetery, with 49 percent saying he was not and 50 percent saying yes, either with official honors (30 percent) or via a public burial (20 percent).

On the other side of the ledger, the widespread support for his war on crime would appear to suggest a congruence of popularity and policy support, though, even here, caution is warranted and there is actually much more ambivalence than is being conveyed. Let me explain.

Newly released SWS data this week shows that 54 percent were “very satisfied” with the war on drugs, with 30 percent “somewhat satisfied,” 4 percent “somewhat dissatisfied,” 4 percent “very dissatisfied,” and 8 percent “undecided.” Though media accounts have predictably simply combined the “very satisfied” and “somewhat satisfied” percentages to say that 84 percent support the campaign, in reality the fact that just under a third of those surveyed said they were only somewhat satisfied is significant as it indicates ambivalence that might otherwise be expressed simply as a “no” in a two-choice-only yes/no poll, rather than a four-choice one.

The significance of the somewhat satisfied group, and the ambivalence of Filipinos with respect to the campaign more generally, is made clear in the second question SWS asked – which has been omitted from several press reports – about how important respondents think it is that police keep illegal drug trade suspects alive, clearly a response to widespread concerns about extrajudicial killings. A whopping 71 percent thought it was “very important” to keep suspects alive, 23 percent thought it was “somewhat important,” 5 percent thought it was “somewhat not important,” and 2 percent thought it was “not at all important.”

If we were to combine the “very important” and “somewhat important” scores for the same effect as media accounts did with the first question, we end up with 94 percent of respondents believing that it is very important or somewhat important to keep suspects alive, even though we have 84 percent either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the campaign itself. That clearly signals some ambivalence, though it must be said that the intensity was greater on the importance of keeping suspects alive relative to satisfaction with the campaign. That is indicated both in the total figures (94 percent vs. 84 percent) as well as in the clearer reaction represented by either “very important” in the second question or “very satisfied” in the first (71 percent vs. 54 percent). In other words, though overall support for Duterte’s drug campaign is high, concern about the extrajudicial killings occurring as part of that is higher.

Turning to foreign policy, though it is still early days, Duterte’s first hundred days has seen him trying to distance the Philippines from the United States and move it closer to China. While we do not yet have direct polls about his policies towards both countries, we do have data on what Filipinos think of them, and what we know indicates that the population is not where the president is.

Polling data we have on the Philippines over the past few years have showed a general distrust of China, and that trend has not changed despite Duterte’s overzealousness to engage Beijing since coming to power (See: “The Risks of Duterte’s China and South China Sea Approach“). The latest data we have on China comes from the SWS poll done from June 24-27, just before Duterte’s inauguration and weeks before the arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague on the Philippines’ South China Sea case against Beijing. That showed that 51 percent of Filipinos had “little trust” in China, with 27 percent having “much trust” and 19 percent “undecided”. That’s a net trust rating of -24 percent, which is classified as “poor.”

Popular perceptions of the United States, by contrast, have long been sky-high, though there of course remain pockets of resentment owing to various factors including Washington’s colonial legacy in the country as well as perceived infringements on Philippine sovereignty. Though SWS has not done a comparable recent poll on the United States, we can use Pew data for both the United States and China to observe the stark difference between the two (just using it for the United States would violate the cardinal rule of not mixing different polls). For 2015, Pew data showed that while 92 percent of Filipinos had either a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of the United States, just 54 percent had the same view of China (though, to be fair, that number did increase from 2014). Despite Duterte’s vitriolic rhetoric against Washington, it appears he has got his work cut out to convince the Filipino people to view the United States unfavorably.

Initial Support vs. Trend Lines

Third, while we now have a sense of Duterte’s overall support after the first quarter of his presidency, in the Philippine context, that’s not nearly as important as the evolution of his popularity thereafter, which is still too early to chart.

If you look at charts showing the evolution of support for past Philippine presidents, they all dramatically decrease starting from their entry into office and end up significantly lower once they leave. Doing some math using the SWS data for instance, the past five presidents have averaged a huge 43 percent change in their net satisfaction ratings from entry to exit. That suggests that it is more meaningful to look at changes of support over time rather than just overall support they start with.

In Duterte’s case, it is arguably even more important to pay attention to trend lines rather than aggregate figures at the outset. As an outsider from the country’s south, his name is far less well-known relatively speaking compared to the dynasties we are used to seeing in Philippine national politics, so his actual popularity may in fact lag initial polls.

Furthermore, while he has called for bold changes, the Philippine population thus far has only been exposed to a few of his policies that are domestically popular – such as the crackdown on crime and drugs – rather than more controversial ones like constitutional reform and the move to a federal system. This, combined with the more general tendency for public opinion to quickly swing from embracing change to decrying it once rhetoric begins to move into reality, makes trend lines more meaningful than initial figures. Duterte’s high popularity ratings at the outset could be as much a product of what people do not yet know about him as it is their support for what they already do know.

What can we say about trends so far? Thus far, in Duterte’s case, it is too early to tell whether his support is dropping or rising relative to when he first took office or even just prior to that. The temptation of his critics might be to quickly point to the fact that since another SWS survey conducted from June 24 to June 27 had measured Duterte’s net trust rating at 79 percent, and the current result shows 76 percent, that is a sign that his popularity is declining. That would be unfair. The June poll had asked about “trust” rather than “satisfaction,” since in the former case, he had yet to assume power. To render a more just verdict, we will need a few more quarters of data during his time in office to really assess what the trend line is.

What, then, should we look for, and what might it tell us? That’s a tougher question to answer. What is clear is that a single dramatic increase or decrease may not mean as much in spite of what the headlines suggest since, if you examine the data, there can often be wild swings in one direction or another even after a single quarter. Ramos saw his initial +66 percent net satisfaction rating decrease to +60 percent the next quarter and then back to +66 percent after the following one, while Aquino saw his initial +60 percent increase to +64 percent then decline dramatically to +51 percent. Estrada – who is most similar to Duterte in terms of his ‘outsider’ quality and his former experience as mayor before assuming national office – offers a bit of a cautionary tale, with his net satisfaction rating of +60 percent rising to +61 and then +67, but then quickly tanking thereafter to +28 (though that’s a bit of an aberration due to his ouster).

What is more meaningful in terms of data on Duterte, then, is if we see either clear increases or stabilization after a few quarters on the one hand or dramatic decreases thereafter, especially if they occur after the population has had sufficient time to reflect on the impacts of significant policies that are central to the president’s agenda.

Evolving Popularity vs. Expending Political Capital

Fourth and lastly, it is important to stress that as important as a president’s evolving popularity rating is, it only one indicator of his support and does not tell us much about how successful his or her policies are or their eventual political fortunes. Popularity is especially fickle in the Philippines and can change back and forth quite dramatically very quickly either because of or in spite of certain policies, and often interacting with elite opinion, sentiment within key institutions like the military and legislature, and, of course, events or crises.

Fidel Ramos, regarded as one of the more successful recent Philippine presidents and now Duterte’s special envoy to China, still holds the record for the highest SWS net satisfaction rating at +66 percent, — even higher than Duterte’s — but also saw one of the highest net satisfaction differentials from the beginning to end of his term at 47 percent, above the average of 43 percent cited earlier. Ramos’ term started strong – with several important economic and governance reforms that paved the way for the high growth rates the country has witnessed since – but he faced stiff congressional opposition to some of his policies and his efforts to change the constitution to run for a second term towards the end of his term was quite unpopular.

Joseph Estrada, an actor initially elected president after Ramos in 1998 with an even higher vote margin than Duterte, soon faced corruption and impeachment and was overthrown midway through his term by a coalition of various groups including big business, a collection of activists and the powerful Catholic Church. Yet Estrada was also able to preserve his popular support and then run again for president in 2010, finishing second, before serving as the mayor of Manila.

Given the fickleness of popular support and the key role of various institutions in the fate of a president, a more useful and comprehensive indicator of a president’s success, for instance, might be to track how a president is expending his political capital taking into account the full extent of his elite and popular support, the various structural and circumstantial constraints around him, and the key priorities he chooses to advance and how he sequences them. In Duterte’s case, how he expends his political capital might also be a more telling indicator given both his repeated insistence that some policies must be implemented irrespective of their popularity as well as worries that he is trying to change too much too soon thereby risking making too many enemies (See: “The Trouble With the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte“).

It is too early to tell how Duterte has been performing on this score, as we will have to look at various things including how he sequences his bold policy proposals, how successful he is at winning the support of key institutions and preserving his popularity, and how he handles both opposition to his policies as well as crises or failures which inevitably face any president. On the one hand, his war on crime seems to be quite popular and he has been trying to consolidate his support within the military which he knows is key to having on his side (See: “Philippine Defense Policy Under Duterte: What’s in a Budget?“). But on the other hand, we have not had enough time to see if congressional opposition will build in response to some of his more controversial policies or if he will respond to crises and failures by revealing what some see as an authoritarian streak, a surefire way to alienate the population and to sow doubts about his staying power among key institutions.

All the more reason then to be a bit more cautious about making headline-grabbing statements about Duterte’s popularity and prospects even as we see more initial polls coming out in the next few months.

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