The nation’s last card?

So long as Filipinos believe that President Duterte is the country’s last card in its bid to survive the challenges facing it, so long will they stand by him regardless of the cause he espouses or the position he takes on any issue. This, to me, is what the recent opinion polls of the Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia seem to be saying, despite the slight variations in their results.

No other president in recent memory has tested public opinion as sharply as Mr. Duterte has in his first year. No one has risked so much political capital on so many unwinnable issues in such a short time as this president. By wading into countless controversies on various fronts, and by doing so often in the most uninformed way, he has given the public every opportunity to either reject him or embrace him. There appears to be almost no room for a neutral attitude when it comes to Mr. Duterte.  This is borne out by the surveys.

The polls show that a good majority of our people continue to repose their trust in him. SWS gave him a net trust rating of +60 in its September 2017 survey, a substantial decline of 15 points from its June poll, but still considered “very good” by the SWS’ own rating system. In the Pulse Asia survey for September, on the other hand, trust in Mr. Duterte stood at a high 80 percent, a mere one-percent drop from the preceding June survey. This makes the President the most trusted person among the government’s highest officials.

Notwithstanding the increasingly strident voices heard on both sides of the political divide, public opinion still seems to clearly favor Mr. Duterte. I don’t think this is due to any specific policy or program, or to anything by which he has tried to define his presidency — like the bloody campaign to rid the country of the menace of illegal drugs. Neither is it attributable to any visible or concrete achievement of his in any area of governance. I suspect it is due, rather, to a deep public disenchantment with the old political order that the former Davao City strongman has been expressly recruited to dismantle.

It was this antisystemic impulse that catapulted Mr. Duterte to the presidency; it is this same force that keeps him there and makes the people unmindful of his lack of clear direction and basic unpreparedness for the nation’s highest office. What the people showed in the last elections is that they were ready to try anything in the name of change, any kind of change.

When candidate Duterte declared in the presidential debates that he represented the nation’s last card (huling baraha), he instantly resonated with them. They did not have to ask what the game was for which he was their last card. It was enough that he offered them something to which they could cling for hope.

I don’t think anyone else had grasped that sense of overwhelming despair or responded to it in the way Mr. Duterte did. There was, after all, no vital indication that the people thought the country was headed in the wrong direction in the years preceding the 2016 presidential election. Indeed, the economy was growing steadily under a president who managed to maintain his reasonably good approval ratings over an extended period, except toward the end of his term.

Yet, if we look back more closely, we might find that there were already telltale signs of a growing disaffection with a government that seemed chronically unable to respond to what appeared at first glance as simple problems. Emblematic of this state of affairs was the Metro Rail Transit that kept breaking down and couldn’t seem to meet the minimum standards of public service. Always, the dark shadow of corruption and incompetence loomed as an explanation for the sad state into which the mass transport system in general had fallen.

Then the Mamasapano massacre happened — a tragedy that encapsulated all the dire consequences of a leadership that seemed devoid of political will, coordination, and empathy. In the end, it was the petty crime of extorting money from unsuspecting passengers who fell victim to the airport racket “tanim bala” which portrayed in a large way the uselessness of a government that could not identify with the aggravations experienced by the ordinary Filipino in daily life.

As it happened, therefore, Filipinos went to the polls last year looking for a strong-willed president who would punish the corrupt, rid the country of criminals, waste no words on incompetent public officials, and whip the whole government service into line. In their eyes, the entire system had become so corrupted that only a confirmed outsider to the ruling political class would have filled the bill.

From the moment he opened his mouth at the start of the electoral campaign, Mr. Duterte had become that figure. It had nothing to do with the specific issues he championed (like the shift to a federal form of government), or what he pledged to do if elected (like riding a jetski and carrying a Philippine flag to the nearest Chinese outpost, or dumping the dead bodies of drug pushers into Manila Bay to fatten the fish). People were looking for a weapon against the system, and they found it in him.

This antisystemic impulse will likely outlive President Duterte.  So deep are its wellsprings that the people will learn to resolve their cognitive dissonance (the conflict between beliefs and information about events) by reinterpreting events rather than by altering their beliefs. They will find ways to rationalize and reinforce their trust in the card they had picked—until a more persuasive symbol of change comes along, someone who will offer a coherent plan and a bolder but optimistic view of government. One thing is certain, though: There can be no return to the old discredited system.