You cannot blame some people if they remain skeptical of the latest opinion poll from Pulse Asia showing incredibly high approval and trust ratings for Rodrigo Duterte.
Many people who surf the social media — Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the instant messaging apps — would agree the survey results were incredible as there are too many harsh criticisms on the president’s performance and how the government was handling the pandemic.
They would not agree that only one in every 10 Filipinos were unhappy with the leader’s performance during the last 250 days when the first case of the deadly virus surfaced in central Philippines.
It is highly suspicious that no other Philippine leader has ever achieved an almost perfect trust rating as the country faced its toughest crisis since the Second World War almost eight decades ago.
Millions of Filipinos went hungry and lost their jobs as the government imposed the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns to control the spread of the coronavirus, ruining the economy which contracted for the first time in decades.
But the government has failed to stop the transmission of the disease, which placed the country at 18th spot with the most number of cases in the world, overtaking Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan.
It has remained the epicenter of the pandemic in Southeast Asia and is second only to Indonesia in terms of fatalities, with more than 6,000 dead.
As the government struggled to slow down the spread of the disease, numerous controversies erupted in various state-run agencies, putting into serious doubt Duterte’s leadership in responding to the pandemic.
There was high-level corruption in the government-run medical insurance corporation, forcing the popular leader to change its executives.
There were insinuations of overpriced and defective hospital equipment, like test machines and personal protective equipment imported from China, and there were questions on the equitable distribution of dole-outs to poor families after businesses, transportation and schools were closed during the first signs of community transmission in March to May.
However, Duterte appeared to be immune not only to the virus but to the controversies, as he won a 91-percent trust rating from 1,200 Filipinos asked face-to-face in last month’s Pulse Asia survey.
His spokesman, Harry Roque, immediately trumpeted the high rating as a vote of confidence on the Duterte administration’s pandemic response.
Never mind if the people could only see him on national television in a once-a-week delayed broadcast for about an hour, and the rest of the week no one knows where he is and what he is doing even as lawmakers squabble over control of next year’s proposed P4.506-trillion budget.
Duterte has achieved what his predecessor had tried to build — a cult following. He rose from a small southern city mayor to the country’s can’t-do-wrong leader.
In 1986, the late president Corazon Aquino rose to power three years after her husband was assassinated at the airport’s tarmac by associates of a sick dictator.
She never achieved a 91-percent trust rating even if some people wanted to elevate her to sainthood after a popular revolt saved a failed coup against Ferdinand Marcos.
Her anointed successor, Fidel Ramos, won by a slim margin in a contested election, but slowly won the people’s support by his efforts to bring peace, stability and progress in the country.
He also failed to get a 91-percent trust rating but he consistently had more than 50 percent popularity rating as a leader despite not being a natural politician.
Joseph Estrada was the most popular president before Duterte came in, winning a landslide victory in the 1998 elections. Two years later, he saw his fortunes reversed after he was forced to resign in another popular uprising at EDSA.
At the time of his ouster, the former movie action star had a trust rating above 20 percent and he continued to remain popular, winning a mayoral contest twice after he returned to politics and even placed second to Benigno Aquino III in the 2010 elections.
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was probably the least popular among the country’s leaders but she was in office for the longest time — a total of nine years — surviving several attempts by rogue soldiers to unseat her as well as several motions in the legislature to impeach her.
She scored a high 64 percent immediately after toppling Estrada from power in January 2001, but sank to about 10 percent trust rating in 2007 after the “Hello Garci” scandal broke out.
She never rose beyond 20 percent until the last day of her term and was still unpopular when she was elected by her peers as Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2018.
Noynoy Aquino’s trust rating zoomed to 80 percent after he was elected into office in May 2010, just months after her mother died of colon cancer.
Like his predecessors, his ratings were also a roller coaster ride, dipping to 36 percent in the aftermath of the massacre of 44 police commandos in Mamasapano town, Maguindanao in 2015.
His trust ratings after Typhoon Yolanda in December 2013 was even at high 74 percent, just two points down from the previous pre-Yolanda survey in September 2013.
Only Duterte recorded unprecedentedly high trust and approval ratings since he came to power in July 2016 despite his brutal war on drugs policy, which saw thousands of poor Filipinos killed. He spewed remarks against Catholic bishops and priests in a country of 80 million Catholic faithful.
Some may question the results of the Pulse Asia survey including the methodology, the size of respondents, funding and questions posed on respondents.
But the fact is Duterte is seen as the only leader the people can rely on during these trying times as there are no alternatives who have stepped up to challenge him.
Vice President Leni Robredo and the political opposition have been swept to the sidelines after a devastating 2019 midterm elections defeat.
Although Robredo has been doing an excellent job in responding in her own little way to the pandemic, she was seen too timid and not assertive enough as Arroyo when she was vice president to Estrada.
She started to assert late in the game when the president’s social media influencers and keyboard warriors had done so much damage to her character.
At the height of the corruption scandal at Philhealth, the social welfare and development department has been quietly distributing the second tranche of cash assistance to poor Filipinos.
Although the system itself was not perfect, it was enough to make ordinary people happy at the time the Pulse Asia survey was being done.
Some of the beneficiaries at poor communities in key urban centers were not eligible for the cash assistance. But there are no questions asked as long as this segment of society sees the government is doing something for them.
Duterte still has several months left before he steps down from power in June 2022. He may remain popular until his last day in office but the variables could change as the country continues to move up in the ranking of coronavirus disease cases and the economy continues to contract due to the prolonged lockdown.
It remains to be seen if Duterte remains a hero when the government’s cash runs out and people start to demand food, jobs and livelihood.
The real test of the leader’s popularity will be in May 2022 elections when Filipinos choose a new leader —Duterte’s anointed one for continuity or a new leader who represents change.