Popularity and populism

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies


In just over a week, we’ve learned that President Duterte remains as popular as ever. According to the most recent Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations surveys, around 8 out of 10 Filipinos approve of or are satisfied with the President’s performance. These figures may not be too distant from the rating received by previous presidents at this stage in their term, but it’s worth noting that not all first-year leaders have shaken up the Philippines in the way that he has. At the end of the day, people have had plenty of issues to form opinions on in the last 12 months – and our President has still come out ahead of the game.

President Duterte’s popularity has drawn people to compare him with leaders elsewhere in the world, who have gained significant attention or risen to the top of their respective societies on a wave of popular support. This trend has been at work across Europe, the Americas and Asia, at least. The use of xenophobia, antiglobalization and other fear-driven sentiments has practically become a political cliché.

Cynics say this populist phenomenon is just the latest incarnation of an age-old practice to appeal to the interests of disadvantaged segments of society, using messianic messaging to convert their legitimate dissatisfactions into votes. Cynics say politicians regularly overpromise and underdeliver to their people, especially when it comes to outright “revolution” or change.

Cynicism aside, the rise of populism is indicative of serious problems that confront present governments and societies around the world. Its appeal is indicative of a social crisis that prompts people to seek alternative leadership styles, political systems and entire social orders. Crisis-mode thinking may render citizens easy targets for manipulation and mobilization.

Reflective of or influenced by external social conditions, the rise of populist leaders in Philippine society mirrors at least three enduring challenges that beset our polity: leadership, institution-building and democracy. As in other social settings, these challenges spell out the reasons Philippine society may be a breeding ground for deeper waves of populism.

First, the failure of past leaders to rally the people toward unity and achieve meaningful change has created a desperate mentality among those who seek to bridge the gap between promise and practice once and for all. Despite politicians’ messages of salvation, the meaningful reforms promised dissipate as soon as leaders become reluctant to deal with powerful social forces.

Moreover, our government institutions have not succeeded in effecting inclusive policies and programs. These institutions are further compromised by corrupt practices that isolate regular people from their government. When people do not have a minimum of trust in the technical abilities and uncompromising character of the bureaucracy, they are made more vulnerable to hollow propaganda of outright government failure.

The third reason, and perhaps the core challenge, pertains to the quality of democratization. The populist onslaught may be triggered by the superficial democratization that we have experienced for the past three decades. Far-reaching reforms should be implemented in our electoral and party politics, party-list system, popular participation laws and the grant of magna carta for specific sectors.

As for this administration, with the people’s support President Duterte continues to be provided with an opportunity to beat the cynics back through constructive actions. This means taking all chances to demonstrate strategic leadership that evaluates long-term consequences and does not resort to easy fixes. It also means extending the reach and effectiveness of government agencies to every corner of the country. Finally, it means fostering an environment that ensures better representation for the disadvantaged throughout the policymaking, and not just electoral, process.

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