Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte makes an address in the Covid-19 era. Image: AFP

MANILA – Facing an acute economic crisis, a persistent Covid-19 outbreak and declining popularity, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has fittingly extended a state of national calamity for another year.

While the move will allow the government to adopt emergency measures to stabilize food and basic good prices, as well as deploy Quick Response Funds for especially pressing pandemic needs, it also allows the authoritarian leader to tighten his grip on the country ahead of 2022 presidential elections.

Some of the president’s legislative allies are even pushing for postponement of the polls, potentially allowing Duterte to extend beyond his single six-year term in office.

Instead of reassuring the public about the integrity of upcoming elections, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), which is now packed with Duterte appointees, has left the decision to Congress, a body which is also dominated by the president’s allies.

Meanwhile, the Filipino leader has to grapple with the country’s worst economic crisis in a generation, much of it his own making. In its latest report, the Asian Development Bank forecast a 7.3% contraction for the Philippines, among the worst in Asia. Only Thailand, which posted a laggard 2.4 percent growth last year, is expected to fare worse with an 8% contraction this year.

The ADB’s Philippine projection is almost twice as worse its June forecast of a 3.8% contraction, a reflection of the economy’s 16.5% shrinkage in the second quarter. It also marks a sharp reversal from the country’s close to 6% growth posted in 2019, with the nation bracing for the worst contraction in its post-World War II history.

That will be compounded by declining foreign remittances, usually a key engine for domestic consumption and local growth. The government has said some 600,000 overseas workers had been repatriated as of mid-August, adding to the rising pool of the unemployed.

Shoppers stand apart as social distancing measures amid concerns over the Covid-19 epidemic, while queueing outside a supermarket in Manila on March 17, 2020. Photo: AFP / Maria Tan

“Never before, not even in the country’s debt crisis under [president] Ferdinand Marcos, has [the economy] performed so poorly,” said Solita Monsod, a leading Philippine economist and former head of the country’s National Economic and Development Authority.

One big factor has been the lack of decisive economic countermeasures following the imposition of one of the world’s strictest and longest-lasting Covid-19 lockdowns. 

It took months for Duterte’s government to pass a US$3.6 billion economic recovery program, known as the Bayanihan to Recover as One Law, among the most meager to be rolled out in the region. 

In June, neighboring Thailand passed a $59.7 billion stimulus package that, among other measures, included loan guarantees to keep businesses afloat.

The Filipino president has staked his recovery strategy on the early arrival of vaccines from Russia and China, even if there are serious concerns over their safety and reliability. As a result, the government has fallen short of devising strategies to ease the crisis beyond the hammer of strict lockdowns across the country’s economic hubs.

“Studies have shown that the major factor that accounts for differences in growth performance between countries is government policies and institutions,” Monsod added.

With the Philippines still suffering the worst Covid-19 outbreak in the region, there are signs that Duterte’s image as a strong and decisive leader has been undermined by what some have seen as a generalized display of incompetence in recent months.

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte takes questions while wearing surgical mask on April 8, 2020. Photo: Facebook

A recent survey by a government-leaning consultancy agency has shown that Duterte’s approval ratings are at 64.6%, partly thanks to robust and persistent support in his large home island of Mindanao (79.1%).

But it still marks a dramatic decline from his close to 90% approval ratings last year, as the country previously maintained among one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world.

An increasingly desperate Duterte could prove even more dangerous for the country’s already besieged democratic institutions. Duterte has muzzled his leading critics in recent months, from shutting down the country’s largest television network, ABS-CBN, to the conviction of leading journalist Maria Ressa on dubious charges of cyber-libel.

With next presidential elections emerging on the horizon, Duterte may consider draconian measures to boost his preferred successors, either his daughter, Sara Duterte, or longtime aide, Senator Christopher Go, and prevent a hostile opposition takeover which could lead to reprisals, including over his abysmal rights record.

In command of government largesse and possessing wide-ranging emergency powers, the president is in a strong position to shape the upcoming polls.

The COMELEC is exploring alternative and socially-distanced voting schemes, including voting-by-mail as well as reduction of the number of voters within single precincts from 12 to 5.

Mindanao-based legislator Lawrence Fortun has suggested a staggered and extended three-day election. The proposals, however, could present new sets of challenges for watchdogs and opposition groups to ensure the integrity of the election process.

But even more troubling is the prospect of election cancellations in 2022, which would allow Duterte himself to extend his stay in power beyond his constitutional term limit.

A man wears a mask with the name of President Duterte and his election campaign slogan on April 5, 2020, in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines. Photo: Ezra Acayan / Getty Images via AFP

Former presidential son and Pampanga Representative Mikey Arroyo, citing Covid-19 concerns, is already urging to postpone the 2022 polls. Former Comelec Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, however, quickly questioned its rationale, stating there is “no reason to postpone the elections,” which itself would require constitutional amendment and a potential plebiscite.

“So you’re going to have an electoral exercise, to postpone an electoral exercise? There is no reason to postpone the elections. Other countries have had elections already,” he added.

The controversial proposal, which raised eyebrows across the political spectrum, even provoked Duterte’s Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

“You don’t cancel elections for any reason. That’s treason,” the top Filipino diplomat tweeted.

“We are a democracy or a s*** slave colony. Hold elections period. Those brave to stand in line & vote—even if only 12—decide the next President. Elections=democracy or F*** U. You fucking s***,” he added in a less-than-diplomatic, expletive-laden tweet.