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: AFP / Ezra Acayan / Getty Images

MANILA – In recent months, the Philippines has been at the regional epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, with over 3,000 new infections per day and a 330,000 plus caseload that ranks among the 20 highest in the world.

At the same time, the Philippine economy is expected to contract by 7.3% this year, the second worst performance in the region behind Thailand and a dramatic fall from the average 6% growth seen over the past decade.

But even with those dire numbers and projections, President Rodrigo Duterte is reputedly basking in sky-high approval ratings, which by certain measures are currently the highest worldwide.  

Pulse Asia, among the Philippines’ most authoritative and independent polling agencies, released this week its first nationwide survey results since December. The results showed a surprising 4% rise in Duterte’s approval ratings, bumping his score to a whopping 91%.

Duterte’s key political allies, namely Senate President Vicente Sotto III (84%) and Speaker of the House Alan Peter Cayetano (70%), also garnered high approval ratings.

In a separately released survey by Pulse Asia, also conducted in mid-September, Duterte notched an even higher approval rating of 92% in terms of his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, while his overall administration garnered an 84% approval rating.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in facemask during the Covid-19 crisis. Photo: Presidential Office

Vice President Leni Robredo, de facto leader of the opposition, also received a majority support (57%). Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, however, was gleefully quick to take a swipe at the vice president for her comparatively low approval ratings. 

“Madam Vice President, it seems that what I said is right, it looks like Filipinos do not want politicking during this pandemic,” Duterte’s spokesman said in a mixture of Filipino and English while portraying the survey results as vindication of the administration’s policies.

“Try to stop politicking, maybe your trust rating will rise higher than 50% and your performance rating will be more than 57%,” Roque said.

Critics were quick to raise questions over the surveys’ credibility, given the seeming disconnect with the government’s widely-perceived mishandling of the pandemic and mismanagement of the economy.

The polling agency soon found itself at the receiving end of online attacks by skeptical netizens, as a torrent of memes lambasted what the supposedly biased surveys.

Critic pointed to the odd timing of the survey after months of inactivity, questioned its methodology and raised doubts about the reliability of surveys in a climate of fear, especially after this year’s shock shutdown of the country’s largest media network, ABS-CBN, that coincided with crackdown on outspoken government critics.

Upon closer examination, however, there is less in the surveys that meets the eye. For instance, Pulse Asia shows that 62% of respondents “truly approve” of Duterte’s performance, but as many as 30% only “somewhat approve”, far from the ringing 92% endorsement Duterte’s proponents have trumpeted.

A woman wearing a face mask and a face shield with the text “Oust Duterte!” joins a protest during the 48th anniversary of the Martial Law declaration in the Philippines, in Quezon City, September 21, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Lisa Marie David

Moreover, more than half, namely 59% among the upper-middle classes and wealthy Filipinos and 50% among the urban poor and working class only “somewhat approve” of the govenrment’s Covid-19 management.

Duterte’s overall approval ratings were also boosted by the almost universal (98%) support he garnered in his home island of Mindanao, as well as a  jump in urban poor and working class support (95%) following the provision of financial assistance packages and loan reprieves under the newly-passed “Bayanihan 2” economic recovery program in recent weeks.

These factors may help to explain why back in August another survey put Duterte’s approval rating at a dramatically lower 64%. There is also a fear factor, since the majority of respondents come from urban poor backgrounds, a demographic which has disproportionately borne the brunt of alleged extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s drug war.

In fact, the heads of both Pulse Asia as well as Social Weather Stations, the nation’s two leading survey agencies, have publicly admitted that a general climate of fear may have influenced the respondents’ willingness to express their honest opinion.

Duterte’s high approval ratings are not unique, as populists elsewhere have also seen a temporary boost in their numbers despite their perceived mismanagement of the crisis.

Brazil’s controversial President Jair Bolsonaro, who publicly opposed a lockdown and consistently downplayed the Covid-19 threat, saw his numbers reach historic highs in August, even though Brazil at the time had the second highest number of virus victims worldwide. 

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw his approval ratings jump to as high as 90% at the height of lockdowns which displaced millions of urban poor, failed to prevent the world’s second largest outbreak and devastated the economy.

It’s by now clear that their approval ratings have less to do with their actual performance, often among the worst in the world, but rather their performative skills as astute populists.

A woman wears a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus in Manila on March 13, 2020 Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

In times of immense uncertainty and fear, right-wing leaders such as Duterte have astutely presented themselves as hands on and compassionate who would keep the country safe in perilous times.

Since March, Duterte has regularly addressed the public in late-night speeches, often ringed by generals and top cabinet members, who provide detailed updates on the nations viral condition and the government’s response.

The Filipino leader also displayed a degree of decisiveness by enforcing one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world, which has hammered the economy but also arguably saved thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s supporters and legions of online propagandists have been quick to deflect blame to the president’s underlings or highlight even worse conditions elsewhere, especially in Europe and America.

The Filipino president has managed to take credit for marginal gains in containing the virus in recent months, while shielding himself from blame for any mismanagement of the crisis.

To be sure, Duterte’s approval ratings could dip dramatically in the months ahead as government financial assistance dries up and if the country’s economic recovery remains weak.

Duterte and his fellow global populists are not out of the woods yet, but their rising, not falling, popularity is yet another unanticipated upshot of the pandemic and its aftermath.