Duterte Trust Rating and South China Sea Talk
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Duterte Trust Rating and South China Sea Talk

Jul. 26, 2016  |   Blog   |  0 comments

Pulse Asia, a reputable public opinion polling company in the Philippines, released a survey on July 20 on Filipino senior state leaders. The survey showed recently-inaugurated President Rodrigo Duterte gaining a historic high of 91 percent in public trust in his first week in office. The rating easily broke the former record for the highest level of public trust (85 percent) which was held by President Benigno Aquino III in 2010.

Unusually High Initial Public Trust

The nationwide survey revealed that 91 percent of Filipinos trust Duterte, less than half a percent distrust him, and 8 percent are undecided on whether or not to trust him. Minus the distrust from trust rating, Duterte has achieved 90.5 percent net trust rating in his first week in office. This result is corroborated by an earlier survey from another reputable polling company, Social Weather Station. Released in mid-July, this survey showed Duterte with an 84 percent trust rating, with only 5 percent having “little trust” in him. This gives an “excellent” net trust rating of +79 percent.

Both past histories of the Philippines and countries with popular democracy show that most presidents obtain high ratings during their first weeks in office. Usually, this is also the highest rating they can get throughout their term. However, Duterte’s net trust reading is still unusually high, indicating that Duterte is easily the most popular leader on record. This gives him a clean mandate to start his term.

Source: Pulse Asia.

Anti-Establishment Policy Stand

President Duterte was dubbed the “Donald Trump of Asia” during the Philippines’ election campaign. He made many controversial and anti-establishment comments and policy pronouncements that are uncharacteristic of a politician. Some notable controversial policy pronouncements include: 

  • Not believing in the power of The Hague court in resolving the South China Sea dispute with China. Duterte considers going on bilateral talks to get the best deal for the country. 

  • Not asking the Senate to ratify the Paris climate convention even though the country’s representative had signed it earlier. He considered the terms as not being favorable to the country.

  • Allowing the deceased former President Marcos to be buried in the National Heroes Cemetery.

  • Not pursuing the corruption case against former President Arroyo, and offering her an executive pardon even if she is convicted.

  • Allowing the police to kill drug peddlers extra-judicially if they resist.

Reasons Behind the Unusual Public Trust Surge

Duterte was elected by 39 percent of the popular vote in the May 11 Philippines presidential election. Aside from the normal “honeymoon period” surge of trust going on with any new president, there are two other factors that could probably explain this abnormal trust rating surge and low distrust result.

First, conventional wisdom is that election candidates often make headline policy statements to capture public attention, using them to attack election rivals in the campaign. These candidates subsequently backtrack on the policy commitment after their election victory. However, Duterte has been amazingly consistent in his commitment, standing behind his election promises in the transition period after his May 11 election victory and June 30 inauguration, and even after his assumption to office. This consistency clearly plays a role in the high trust and low distrust reading.

Second, the Philippine public is really looking for a change, and Duterte’s many anti-establishment pronouncements are what people look for. Conventional taboos and public perception of peoples’ wishes are all wrong, and Duterte understands the people’s stand on issues, enabling him to earn their trust.

Philippine presidents under the 1986 constitution always suffer from a steep drop of trust as their term progress. President Aquino was the only president who maintained rather high popularity during a good part of his presidency. The Philippine political culture is very opportunistic, and a drop in popularity and trust in the President often sees judicial and legislative challenges to the President’s executive action, causing policy gridlock. Whether Duterte can break this unfortunate pattern remains unclear.

Implications for the South China Sea Dispute

The Philippines had not gone on a celebration mood after the arbitration award of The Hague tribunal. The restrained behavior was reportedly ordered by Duterte and well taken by the people. China had stated its rejection of the decision and many analysts had pointed out legal inconsistencies in the decision, in particular its rejection of historic rights and legal interpretation of many definitions of maritime features. In any case, the rejection of the decision by China and the absence of enforcement mechanism leave bilateral talks the only available peaceful resolution mechanism.

Both China and the Philippines have declared their intention to go on bilateral talks. However, the current highly publicized background noise will place such talks under a lot of public scrutiny and expose the leaders of both sides to intense public pressure. In a way, China’s pressure is more domestic as the leader must answer to the people on the ancestral fishing ground issue in South China Sea. In the case of the Philippines, Duterte’s pressure comes more apparently from the country’s traditional foreign allies. In any case, an Asian win-win solution calls for pragmatic compromises and it takes strong leaders to sell any proposed settlement to its people under the current intense global scrutiny. It is not going to be an easy task but the continuing popularity of Duterte will be a key point in any forthcoming talks.

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