Presidential Approval and COVID: A Look at the Duterte Brand during the Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis thus emphasizes President Rodrigo Roa Duterte's positive traits and deemphasizes his negative traits.

By: David Barua Yap Jr. Ph.D.


The latest survey from Pulse Asia found that the president presently enjoys a 91% trust rating as well as a 91% approval rating. The latest trust rating of the president represents an almost double digit change from his last known Pulse Asia trust rating of 83% recorded in December of last year. This increase was largely driven by a twelve percentage point increase in NCR as well as a fourteen percentage point increase in Balanced Luzon. These improvements made sure that the president has a trust rating on or above 89% in all of the regional groupings under consideration. The 91% approval rating of the president is the result of a more modest increase from his 87% approval rating late last year. It is of note, however, that this increase was due to a ten percentage point increase in NCR – where his approval rating tends to be relatively lower. This improvement can be viewed to be significant as it brought his approval rating in NCR more in line with corresponding estimates elsewhere in the country.

The latest numbers put forward by Pulse Asia suggest that the approval and trust ratings of President Duterte are trending upward despite (1) the challenges brought about by the COVID pandemic, (2) generally critical media coverage of his administration (i.e. particularly in issues dealing with human rights, Philippine sovereignty, and media censorship) throughout his term, and (3) the imminent reconfiguration of the local political landscape in preparation for the 2022 elections. Support for President Duterte throughout the country appears to be increasing as he nears the end of his term.

While it can be argued that this development is anomalous or even erroneous because it does not conform to the pattern established by preceding administrations (i.e. support for the president typically tapers as he or she nears the end of his or her term) or views held by anti-administration pundits, our present circumstances offer reasonable explanations for the results presented by Pulse Asia. More to the point, the COVID pandemic has provided the president and his administration with a unique opportunity with which to extend assistance to marginalized Filipinos (e.g. Social Amelioration Program, Bayanihan Act, etc.) and demonstrate their concern for the health and welfare of Filipino families (e.g. enforcing community quarantines, shifting away from face-to-face classes and towards alternative learning platforms, etc.). People thus see their government working for them – or at the very least for the supposed benefit of fellow Filipinos. Whether or not the instituted policies truly work towards carving a sustainable way out of the COVID-induced economic slump can be viewed to be secondary to the idea that people see a president that is viewed to be doing his job and addressing the needs of his constituents.

Another complementary explanation is rooted in the branding of President Duterte. If we are to assume that the vast majority of Filipinos view the president as a “strong”, “brave”, and “decisive” leader, it follows that his support would rise sharply during crises. This is because people would tend to favor leaders who are capable of making difficult decisions and exercising leadership during trying and uncertain times. In these situations they would be less interested in congeniality, propriety, or eloquence. The current crisis thus emphasizes his positive traits (e.g. decisiveness, bravery, toughness) and deemphasizes his negative traits (e.g. coarseness, lack of finesse, etc.). Additionally, the focus of the general public on the COVID pandemic makes it (even more) difficult for human rights, media censorship, and sovereignty issues to get significant traction in the public consciousness. Worrying about contracting COVID and losing a breadwinning job, after all, make it difficult for many to agonize over rights abuses in the conduct of the War on Drugs or the fate of the West Philippine Sea. The same explanation can be extended to controversies concerning the Manila Bay reclamation and the pardoning of Joseph Pemberton.

Attacks on civilians and the military during the COVID pandemic by armed groups (e.g. communist insurgents attacking COVID relief convoys, members of the Abu Sayyaf detonating bombs in crowded public areas, BIFF planting roadside bombs and ambushing military outposts located inside towns) could also be viewed to have a galvanizing effect on aggregate support for President Duterte. Apart from justifying his hardline stance towards these groups, these brazen attacks increase the fear and anxiety of people – which further fosters their partiality towards strong, brave, and decisive leaders.   

Given that the COVID crisis and the accompanying economic recession will likely continue well beyond 2020, it stands to reason that the partiality towards strong, brave, and decisive leaders will persist, if not deepen, as the Philippines heads into another critical election year. As such, it can be argued that President Duterte will influence the coming election both with his official endorsement and his actions in tacitly defining what a “preferable” president is for many Filipinos.