Filipinos trust Rodrigo Duterte -- even if they don't like many of his policies

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office nearly a year ago and has attracted criticism at home and abroad for his harsh rhetoric and his bloody crackdown on the country’s drug trade.

But that criticism doesn’t seem to have tempered the Philippine public’s trust in Duterte.

A March survey found that 80% of Filipinos said they had “much trust” in their president, down only one percentage point from a survey conducted in December.

The trust polls, conducted by Social Weather Stations, have tracked Filipinos’ faith in Duterte since December 2015, when he declared his presidential candidacy.

That first poll found him with a 47% trust rating, and his marks have declined only slightly from his peak 84% trust rating recorded in the days before his inauguration at the end of June 2016.

The most recent survey, in which 1,200 Filipinos were interviewed from March 25 to March 28, found 11% of respondents were undecided, while just 10% had “little trust” in the president. Duterte’s +70 net trust rating falls into Social Weather Station’s “excellent” category.

But Social Weather Station’s survey gauges trust, not satisfaction, and other recent polls have revealed areas in which the Philippine public differs from their leader.

A Pulse Asia survey of 1,200 Filipinos conducted from March 15 to March 20 found that 79% of Filipinos trusted the US, while 75% trusted Japan and 69% and 53% trusted Australia and the UK, respectively. Those majorities spanned all geographic areas and socioeconomic strata.

Conversely, just 42% professed trust for Russia while only 37% said they trusted China. Sixty-three per cent of those surveyed said they did not trust China, while 56% said the same of Russia.

That affection for Western countries and distrust for Russia and China is in line with previous surveys and contrasts with Duterte’s repeated denunciations of the West — the US in particular — and his efforts to embrace Beijing and Moscow.

“The polls have consistently shown a schizophrenic reaction to Duterte and his policies,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Institute at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider.

“Most citizens like the idea of an iconoclastic outsider driven to reform Philippine politics and combat crime,” Poling added. “But they consistently break with him on actual policy, including foreign policy and the war on drugs (which they support in theory, but consistently say should not involve killings).”

Duterte’s animus for the US is in part motivated by resentment of the US’s colonial legacy in the Philippines, and his government has indicated that its overtures to Russia and China are part of an effort to chart a more independent foreign policy.

“That’s par for the course. After all these years we’ve been programmed to think that these are the enemies,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said of the survey results, referring to China and Russia.

Abella said Duterte “is breaking free as a disruptor” and that the gulf between the president’s foreign policy and the sentiment of the public was “par for the course.”

Part of Duterte’s continued high ratings has to do with electoral timing. “Every Philippine president since the ouster of Marcos … experienced a similar honeymoon in the polls before crashing to earth after a few quarters,” Poling told Business Insider.

Duterte’s outreach to Moscow and Beijing has yet to yield much. Duterte has made weapons deals with the Chinese and Russian marines have done goodwill tours there. But talks with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea don’t appear to have brought significant changes to the situation on the water.

Nor has Duterte done much to unwind the extensive commercial, political, and military ties binding the Philippines and the US. The Philippine leader appears to have struck up a rapport with US President Donald Trump, though that nascent relationship may not be as healthy as it seems.

The South China Sea could prove to be a flash point for Duterte’s domestic popularity.

While Duterte’s government has objected to some of China’s actions there, one lawmaker has already started filing an impeachment complaint against the president over his “defeatist stance” on Beijing’s presence in the area.

If the Philippine people come to see Duterte as conceding their country’s maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea, he could suffer for it.

Duterte also inherited a strong economy that looks set for continued growth, hitting nearly 7% in each of the next three years. But his emphasis on economic reforms could spur resistance from the Philippine business community, and his hot-headedness and the fallout from his bloody anti-drug campaign have some worried about the counry’s economic vitality.

“The bottom line is that the electorate is extending Duterte a great deal of leeway, even on issues on which they disagree,” Poling told Business Insider. “But if he fails to deliver, the backlash could be rapid and severe.”

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