Then presidential aspirant Rodrigo Duterte stands in front of a campaign poster on November 30, 2015. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte makes today (July 23) his third State of the Nation Address, or SONA, the often tough-talking leader will face an increasingly skeptical national audience.

Buoyed by high opinion poll ratings since his mid-2016 election, Duterte has recently seen his popularity plunge amid growing political opposition, disapproval of his policy towards China and rising discontent with the economy as inflation starts to surge.

Local pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS) most recent survey in June showed Duterte’s satisfaction ratings fell by 11 percentage points from 56% to 45% between the first and second quarters. The rating marked a new low for Duterte, the pollster said.

Opinion is turning on his government where it arguable matters most. In Metro Manila, the country’s seat of power, his satisfaction ratings dropped by as much as 20 points, according to the SWS survey.

Similar declines were recorded in urban areas (18 points), the central Visayas region (18 points) as well as generally among men (12 points). Still strong support in rural areas and in particularly on his home island of Mindanao mitigated against a more precipitous drop in his overall popularity.

Analysts believe his slipping popularity is being driven by multiple factors, not least a recent upsurge in price inflation, which hit an over five-year high year on year in June at 5.2%, and his recent controversial comments about God and the Catholic church, of which he recently agreed to a “moratorium” on statements.

Philippines president-elect Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he speaks before city hall employees in Davao City, southern island of Mindanao, the day before taking oath of office in June 2016. Photo: AFP/Manman Dejeto

While reveling in his previous high opinion ratings, Duterte has been defiantly dismissive of his recent slippage in the polls.

“I do not care. It does not matter to me anymore. It does not interest me at all,” he said at a public event earlier this month. “I just coast along. Just travelling…and with the new suggestion since I’m not popular anymore, Congress might decide to find a popular one. You want a popular president? Fine, good.”

One sore point is his Duterte’s foreign policy, including his much scrutinized lean towards China, which polls show is increasingly being rejected by a majority of Filipinos.

Duterte has consistently sought to justify his soft-pedaling on the South China Sea territorial disputes with China by emphasizing the necessity of strengthening relations with Beijing.

In exchange, China has offered, though largely not yet delivered, large-scale investment deals, including pledges for infrastructure development, as well as diplomatic support to Duterte’s controversial war on drugs. Many Western governments have been overtly critical of the lethal campaign.

A recent SWS survey showed that 81% of Filipinos want Duterte to adopt a less acquiescent stance in the South China Sea. Nearly the same percentage of respondents felt the government should improve the country’s defenses, including the navy in particular.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy soldiers during a visit to a Chinese Naval ship in Davao city, Philippines, May 1, 2017. Photo: China Daily/via Reuters

Another survey conducted by local pollster Pulse Asia showed that 7 out of 10 Filipinos want Duterte to assert the Philippines’ rights in the South China Sea based on a 2016 landmark arbitration award handed down by a tribunal at The Hague that favored Manila’s over Beijing’s claims based on international law.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s advocacy for constitutional change that would allow for a shift to a federal form of government has also been met with public skepticism and political opposition.

According to the SWS survey, a majority of Filipinos are not even aware of what a shift to federalism would mean, with only a small minority strongly supporting it.

A Pulse Asia survey, meanwhile, showed that almost 7 out of 10 Filipinos oppose Duterte’s proposal to shift from a unitary to a federal form of government.

Critics have portrayed the push for constitutional change as a Trojan Horse plot aimed at extending Duterte’s stay in office beyond the current six-year single term limit. Duterte, 73, has reassured the public that he will not extend beyond 2022, when his current term legally expires.

Public skepticism, however, was reignited when Pantaleon Alvarez, speaker of the lower house of Congress and a staunch Duterte supporter, floated the idea of postponing local elections next year in order to expedite the process of constitutional change.

A supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte is pictured during presidential election campaigning in Malabon, Metro Manila, April 27, 2016. Reuters/Erik De Castro

Anticipating heavy opposition to his “no elections” proposal, Duterte’s ally floated the idea of a so-called “people’s initiative” to railroad the shift to federalism. He dismissed critics of his controversial proposal as reactionaries who are opposed to change.

Alvarez has also suggested the formation of a Constituent Assembly, composed of members from both the lower and upper house, to draft and then force a joint House and Senate vote on a new federalism-enabling constitution.

Yet even Dutetre’s allies in the Senate have pushed back against the proposal. Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri lashed out at the idea: “I can tell you now what some of my colleagues might do: they might walk out. A lot of the senators might just stand up and walk out. It will be a mess.”

The 24-member Senate, where Duterte has a slimmer and more independently minded support base, has opposed joint voting with the numerically superior lower-house and been generally lukewarm to the idea of wholesale constitutional change and more amenable to amending certain provisions of the existing charter.

Civil society groups are also mobilizing against Duterte’s call for constitutional change. The Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum, for one, has said it is “seriously alarmed and highly apprehensive” of the way the administration and its allies are pushing for a shift to federalism.

In a July 11 statement, the Catholic and Protestant bishops described the move as “sinister” and that it may grant “Duterte the power to exercise a monopoly of executive, legislative and judiciary powers” and eventually “pave the way for one-man rule.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks after he delivered his State of the Nation address to Congress, Metro ManilaJuly 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Influential business groups like the Makati Business Club (MBC), Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) and Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (Finex), have all called for constitutional amendments rather than a move to a new form of government.

As many as 270 leading academics, including the heads of top universities, have also questioned the necessity, design and implications of a shift to a federalism.

Rosario Manasan, a senior research fellow at the government-affiliated Philippine Institute of Development Studies, says that a federal form of government could cost the country 55 billion pesos annually in added expenses, excluding the cost of transition.

Even Duterte’s leading economic managers, including his economic and budget ministers, have expressed doubts over the country’s preparedness and the government’s fiscal readiness for constitutional change.

Though still broadly popular, he will have his work cut out for him in convincing an increasingly skeptical populace at his July 23 SONA speech that his plans, policies and visions are viable and in the best interest of the nation.

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