Here are the things that gave him a still-dizzying approval rating.
Fifty months and two weeks into the presidency of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, people must remember ten things about him—his five major achievements and his five major failures. The achievements gave the Filipino strongman a dizzying public approval rating of more than 81 percent in most of 2019 (2020 tells a different story).
His five major achievements:
1) Significant or a 6.8 percentage-point reduction in poverty from 23.5 percent of the population when Duterte began his presidency to 16.7 percent by the end of 2019—equivalent to 6.1 million Filipinos rescued from poverty, defined as earning just $2 a day, thanks to three major tax reforms – the Rice Tariffication Law (which removed rice monopolies and allowed importations that brought down rice prices; rice is 15 percent of the consumer basket); the TRAIN or Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Law of January 2018 (which exempted from hefty income taxes those earning no more than P250,000 a year, the bulk of low income earners, thus freeing billions for consumption or savings); and the Universal Health Care Act, a socialist act copied by countries like Thailand but which is being undermined by massive corruption at the state health insurance agency, PhilHealth.
2) The campaign against illegal drugs
Hugely popular, with almost two of every three Filipinos believing the number of drug users in their area has been reduced since Duterte came to power in 2016, Tokhang (a slang meaning knocking at your doors in search of criminals) has resulted in some 7,000 drug lords and addicts eliminated from the face of the earth in just two years (twice the number the late Ferdinand Marcos was accused of killing in 20 years of strongman rule; human rights watchers insist Duterte killed more than 27,000 but give no proof).
Crime likewise came down. The campaign invested Duterte with the gravitas of a strongman, a leader who can get things done by the sheer power of his will – and that of his police and armed forces.
3) Sanctioning of abusive utilities.
The President went hammer and tongs against the utilities like water and telco. He sought to scrap the long-term contracts, secured in 1997, of the two major water concessionaires serving 16 million customers in the Metro Manila and nearby provinces—the Maynilad Water of the First Pacific Ltd group of Antoni Salim of Indonesia and Filipino CEO Manuel V. Pangilinan, and the Manila Water Co. of the old-time Ayala family and the Singapore government—unless they accept new contract with better terms to the Philippine government. Stung, the two water companies gave up P11 billion in arbitral awards –refund from unapproved rate increases. Ayala’s Manila Water sold 25 percent of its equity to ports tycoon Enrique Razon for P10 billion with the latter eventually taking control of the utility.
4) Breakup of some oligarchies.
The closure on May 5, 2020 of broadcast behemoth ABS-CBN Corp. of the old Lopez oligarchy is not a retribution against a pesky media institution nor intended to intimidate if not silence critics in media. It is, if you believe government, an attempt to break up oligarchies. The Lopezes are the original Philippine oligarchy, with their power and influence dating back to the 1800s, or seven generations.
The House of Representatives, where radio-tv franchises originate, rejected on July 9, 2020, nine bills seeking to renew for another 25 years, the franchise of ABS-CBN, which expired on May 4, 2020. In one year, listed ABS-CBN’s market value dropped from P13.54 billion in May 2019 to almost nothing by today. The company had to lay off nearly all of its 11,000 workers.
Four days after the rejection, Duterted addressed troops in battle-weary Jolo, Sulu. The President enthused in Pilipino and English: “I can die, fall from a plane. I am very happy. You know why? Without declaring martial law, I dismantled the oligarchy that controlled the economy of the Filipino people.”
“The rich,” he said, “milk the government and the people. Without declaring martial law, I destroyed the people who strangle our economy and do not pay (taxes). They take advantage of their political power.”
The emphasis on “without declaring martial law” is meant to convey that Duterte was more powerful (or probably smarter) than the late Ferdinand Marcos who had to declare martial law in 1972 and proceeded to breakup the various oligarchic families starting with the Lopezes whose Abs-CBN radio-tv network was seized as part of the strongman’s effort to reform society.
In separate speeches, Duterte had also referred to the Ayala family, founder of the Philippines’ oldest commercial house, in 1834, and the PLDT Group’s Pangilinan, also as oligarchs, and targeted their utility businesses.
5) Savvy fiscal management.
Under Duterte, the Philippines achieved its highest ever credit rating—BBB+ in April 2020, despite COVID-19. In June 2020, Japan Credit Rating Agency even upgraded the Philippine rating to A-, with a stable outlook.
Japan’s top debt watcher, JCR is smaller than the top three credit rating agencies Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service, and S&P Global Ratings.
But the JCR upgrade came at a time when the Philippines was deep in the deepest recession in its history as result of the world’s longest and most severe lockdown that shut down the economy for seven months, eviscerating 73 percent of its GDP, closing 70 percent of businesses, laying off some 20 million workers, and impoverishing half of the population in an instant.
Next: The five major failures.