Duterte turns 72: A look at his presidency so far

Duterte turns 72: A look at his presidency so far
Rodrigo Duterte
PHOTO: Reuters

Can you believe it?

Clint Eastwood is in his late 80s.

Compared to him, Rodrigo Duterte, also known as "Duterte Harry," the controversial strongman president of the Philippines, is a spring chicken.

He turns 72 Tuesday.

But nine months, 8,000 body bags (and counting) and billions of Chinese investment dollars into his term, there's still no sign of the one thing septuagenarians probably want most: peace.

Not in the desperate alleys of Manila's equivalent of favelas.

Read Also: Duterte to spend birthday 'quietly' with family

Not in the south of the country, Mindanao, where Duterte's from, and where war still rages with insurgents of several stripes.

Not in the hearts and minds of the country's nearly 100 million Filipinos.

Why?

Richard Heydarian, one of a new breed of younger, more internationalist Philippine analysts, said a confluence of factors is keeping Duterte in power, perpetuating the situation.

First, Duterte's approval ratings are still very strong, he noted.

Polls also show people are very much behind his war on drugs.

They actually say they feel safer.

Second, Duterte and his supporters have a super-majority in congress, Heydarian explained.

Moves to impeach the president aren't likely to succeed.

The opposition, as always in the fractious Philippines, is fragmented and fragile.

But pressure from the outside could bring change.

Read Also: Watch: A chilling look at Duterte's war on drugs

Heydarian, recently back from meeting policymakers in Washington D.C., acknowledges that the US perception of Duterte is radically different from the view at home.

"Outside the country he's seen as an unhinged demagogue, if not a dictator in the making, while domestically, a significant majority of population believe that this guy still has to be given a chance," Heydarian said. "He's still the best light of hope for the country."

In May of last year, enough people with that kind of hope, voted to put Duterte in power.

His victory didn't just change the stale, predictable Philippine political landscape.

The earth moved, overturning more than three decades of almost dynastic, political-insider rule.

Duterte was the ultimate outsider, not the usual scion of landed gentry.

Read Also: Philippines' Duterte reignites martial law fears

He's from the free-wheeling south and a foul-mouthed, get-things-done guy. But what has he actually achieved?

He won Filipinos over, promising safety, security, and an end to corruption.

Instead, there is fear. Yes, through the entire methamphetamine value-chain.

But that includes downstream, disenfranchised and destitute victims of drug abuse.

Or simply people in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

They're not always innocents, but being complicit is usually enough.

We'll leave peace with the Moro communists and liberationists in Mindanao for another column.

So too, the insurgent splinter groups that have decided to radicalize and fight under the black flag of IS.

Enough to talk about average Filipinos, one in four of whom still lives below the poverty line, just trying to get by day in, day out.

Heydarian, who also advises hedge funds, said their lot hasn't gotten much better.

Not with the economy and foreign investment slowing, business confidence eroding, and with the peso one of the worst performing currencies in Asia this year.

That affects Filipinos where it hurts the most - in the pocket.

Read Also: Duterte ignores threat of suit in international court

The billions of dollars remitted from those working abroad may be worth a whole lot more when converted to pesos at home, but a weaker currency also likely makes everything they buy, including imports, more expensive. And because consumption's a huge part of the Philippine economy, inflation could adversely affect not just growth, but job creation and wages.

And on top of an economic struggle, those people also now fear for their family's and their own lives.

Still, Heydarian said life could get even tougher for them: "The Philippine economy could get very hurt by Western countries who are concerned about the Philippines' human rights."

He said up to $400 million (S$560 million) in development aid to the Philippines could be at risk of being cancelled.

Additionally, the European Union could withdraw special preferential treatment for Philippine imports.

The West also may not favour Duterte's geopolitical embrace of China.

Read Also: Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte calls European critics 'crazies'

Strongest evidence of that was Duterte's call not to rub in Beijing's face a Hague ruling last year rejecting China's claim to most of the South China Sea.

And, of course, his acceptance of billions of dollars in investment from China.

The irony, Heydarian said, is that any backlash from the West could "push Duterte more into the embrace of China."

He noted, though, that the president is facing significant pushback from the Philippine military establishment, which is much more comfortable with the US and the West.

For now, Heydarian said he believes Filipinos are giving Duterte the benefit of the doubt - but for lack of any better alternatives.

"I think this has very much to do with declining public confidence in the democratic institutions in the country," he said.

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