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 – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s popularity is in free fall while his ruling coalition is on the verge of total disintegration, just as the country enters a 2022 presidential election cycle.

The circus-like contest is also rapidly turning into a referendum on the Duterte administration’s massive mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As many as 60% of Filipinos, including a majority of potential voters from Duterte’s home island of Mindanao, oppose the incumbent’s controversial bid to seek the vice-presidency at next year’s election, which would potentially allow him to skirt the constitution’s single six-year term limit.

On multiple occasions, the Filipino president admitted that his plans in upcoming elections are driven by fears of potential prosecution for his human rights record.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has already begun a full investigation into allegations of mass atrocities under Duterte’s scorched earth drug war, where thousands have been slain in extrajudicial killings.

Latest surveys show Duterte’s overall approval, as well as favorability ratings for next year’s elections, have suffered double-digit declines. His trust ratings dropped by 21% from last November, while his numbers among likely presidential candidates have almost halved.

After a series of open spats with her father, who is pushing for a trusted aide to replace him next year, potential presidential candidate Sara Duterte has also seen her once commanding lead in previous surveys evaporate.

Latest surveys show that she is now statistically tied with rivals such as Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr and Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno, both of whom have rapidly built nationwide networks of support.

Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr addresses the crowd on July 1, 2019, in Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila, Philippines. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto / Artur Widak

Meanwhile, ambitious former allies are also turning on the president by presenting themselves as candidates of change in next year’s elections.

Senator Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao was the first prominent candidate to file his candidacy for the presidency today (October 1) vowing to fight corruption and stand for impoverished Filipinos, who critics say have borne the brunt of extrajudicial killings and pandemic mismanagement under the Duterte administration. 

Other potential candidates have until October 8 to file their candidacies, but there is growing speculation that the Duterte camp will weigh its options until November 15, the deadline for “substitute” candidacies, should one of them or their proxies withdraw from the race.

Just months ago, the Filipino president and his allies were riding high. Until last month, the potential “Duterte-Duterte” tandem topped various surveys. The incumbent also wielded emergency powers and enjoyed significant control over state resources, placing the Dutertes in a strong position ahead of next year’s elections.

But Duterte’s endorsement of his protégé, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, as his anointed successor alienated the presidential daughter, who lashed out at her father’s mix-signaling as well as his scheming allies, who fear loss of influence should Sara become the next president. 

The perpetual infighting within the Duterte camp, and Sara Duterte’s announcement that she would rather seek re-election as mayor of Davao City, has undermined the incumbent’s early advantage and increasingly alienated large sections of the electorate.

On top of this, a string of corruption scandals across top government agencies has further eroded confidence in the Duterte administration, which has overseen one of the worst Covid-19 health catastrophes and economic recessions in Asia.

By all indications, Duterte’s base is a sinking ship. In a major rebuke of his ambition to stay in power by all means necessary, recent surveys show a majority of Filipinos now oppose his bid to take the vice-presidency next year.

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

According to a Social Weather Stations (SWS) poll, conducted from June 23 to 26 through face-to-face interviews with 1,200 adult Filipinos, only 39% of potential voters agreed with Dutetre’s plan to seek the second-highest office next year.

Meanwhile, a majority of potential voters in the major geographical regions of Balance Luzon (65), Visayas (59%), and Metro Manila (56%) opposed Duterte’s bid to run for the vice-presidency. Interestingly, the same is true in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao (53%).

The same survey showed as many as 60% of Filipinos agreed with the sentence, “The proposal that President Rodrigo Duterte should run for vice-president in the 2022 election violates the intention of the Constitution, which should first be amended before he may run for office again.”

Though still popular, Dutere’s approval ratings have also been in free fall. While his trust rating stood at around +62 in June, this represented a double-digit decline from the “excellent” level of +79 he notched last November, according to a poll by Social Weather Stations (SWS) in the second quarter of the year. Duterte’s approval ratings stood at 82% a month before the pandemic erupted.

Experts believe that this trendline could continue as the Filipino populist enters his final months in office and both his rivals and former allies tap into growing public anger at widespread corruption and mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic in the past year.

Not only are Duterte’s approval ratings declining, but his chances in next year’s elections are also nose-diving, other polls indicate. 

According to the latest Pulse Asia survey, conducted in the first week of September, the Filipino president is now a distant second in the race (14%) behind Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III (25%), who has emerged as the clear favorite for the vice-presidential office next year.

Duterte himself acknowledged the potential of veteran legislator Vicente “Tito” Sotto, who has been a decades-old household name thanks to his stint as one of the hosts of the popular noontime show, “Eat Bulaga”, which millions regularly view across the country.

During his final State of the Nation Address in July, Duterte almost endorsed Sotto as a “good man” who “can be a good vice president”, thus reinforcing speculation that the Filipino populist might opt to skip the race altogether in favor of an anointed successor.

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte in a file photo. Photo: Twitter
Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Sara Duterte’s numbers have also nosedived in the latest survey, declining from a high of 28% earlier in the last quarter to around 20% in Pulse Asia’s September survey, making her statistically tied with Bongbong Marcos Jr.

Experts believe that the Duterte camp might instead field Bong Go as a vice-presidential candidate, or field a joint ticket with the ascendant Marcoses, who have expressed openness to a Bongbong-Sara Duterte tandem.

Meanwhile, former Duterte ally Senator Pacquiao, who has officially retired from his boxing career, was the first prominent candidate to file his certificate of candidacy (COC) for the presidential race.

With around 12% of potential voters behind him, the Filipino boxer-turned-legislator is statistically tied with Isko Moreno (13%) and Bongbong Marcos (15%), the Pulse Asia survey shows.

Also hailing from the southern island of Mindanao, Pacquiao, who has seen a surge in his base among the poorest sections of voters, is hoping to capture large parts of Sara Duterte’s “Solid South” base should the presidential daughter withdraw from the national race or, instead, run as a vice-presidential tandem with Marcos.

Upon filing his candidacy, Pacquiao expressed confidence in his chances for the top office. 

“A survey is just a number. It does not include the voices of the poor people, those that really need our care and love,” the senator said, signaling his campaign focus on marginalized Filipinos who have suffered the most during the pandemic. 

Manny Pacquaio (L) is taking a swing at the presidency. Credit: Handout.

Throughout the months, Pacquiao has made it clear that fighting corruption will be a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, placing him on a collision course with Duterte and his anointed successors.

“Look, we are still in pandemic now and yet there’s too much corruption. These people are shameless,” said Pacquiao earlier this year amid escalating tensions with the president.

“Please don’t get mad, Mr President, because I am also trying to help you get rid of corruption, which is the root of poverty in our country.”