Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been called a lot of things: a maverick; a mischief-maker; the architect of a murderous war on drugs that has left almost 5,000 dead.
He has been described on more than one occasion as “the Trump of the East” for his brash style, impulsiveness and frequently offensive speeches.
Yet while some supporters reject this comparison, it’s certainly true in part. In much the same way, the US president has his untold legions of “shy Trumpers” – backers too embarrassed to admit they gave the former reality television star their vote – like Duterte has his own band of secret admirers, happy to see a strongman’s hand back on the country’s tiller once again.
Not since the days of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos have so many Filipinos died at the hands of government agents, or parts of the country been subject to martial law for so long.
Yet in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Duterte still enjoys high approval ratings. A survey of 1,800 voting-age Filipinos conducted by Pulse Asia in September found 75 per cent supported his leadership style, while 72 per cent said they trusted him.
Meanwhile, international condemnation has done little to dent the president’s popularity – for some, it only serves to bolster it.
“Duterte has lots of balls. He’s the only president who brought the Balangiga bells [seized by US forces in 1901 as war booty] back to our country, who said no to the US, the United Nations, and the European Union. He has guts. He doesn’t beg for support,” said one “silent” supporter – a successful entrepreneur who relishes the president’s maverick image abroad.
Others such as Jeremiah Belgica, a constitutional law professor and Christian pastor, support Duterte’s policies and have made peace with his arguable application of the law and frequent attacks on the church – the latest on December 5 when he said Catholic bishops were “better off dead”.
“I’m part of a community of professional social scientists, economists, Christians, young Christian thinkers. We have different views on Duterte. But from both sides of the table, everybody is for life, everybody is for peace, everybody is against drugs,” he said.
Formerly a part of the so-called silent majority, Belgica has allowed his name and pro-Duterte views to be made public in the hope that it will encourage more of the president’s secret supporters to come out.
“I think silence hurts a lot, both for the person who is silent and to the people who would’ve benefited if you had just spoken,” he said. “I think we owe it, not only to ourselves, but we owe it to God and to our country to say something if we know something is true.”
A survey conducted by pollsters at Social Weather Stations in September found 76 per cent of Filipinos were satisfied with the Duterte administration’s campaign against illegal drugs, while 51 per cent supports mandatory drug testing of schoolchildren as young as 9 – a controversial Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) proposal that triggered fierce resistance from the country’s Department of Education.
One of the reasons for this overwhelming support can be found in another Social Weather Stations’ survey from September, which revealed 41 per cent of respondents thought there were “very many” drug addicts in their neighbourhoods.
And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to fuel such public perceptions.
One big business owner in Manila said she had heard numerous stories from her employees of safer streets and dead “drug pushers” in the wake Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign.
“I had an employee who told me, ‘Ma’am, I cannot stay late at night for our staff meeting because, by that time, I can’t even take a tricycle because sometimes even the tricycle drivers are drug pushers. There are people in the street selling drugs, face-to-face, as if they’re just selling cigarettes, and there are people drinking, half naked in the street’.”
“When Duterte came, I asked my staffer if he had moved out of his house. He said: ‘No, ma’am! Our street now is clean. No more drugs selling in the street, no more people drinking half nude. It’s peaceful.’”
The employer, who did not want to be named, said she had posted pro-Duterte articles on social media in the past, but had been warned by her friends “don’t do that, you might lose your business”.
This pressure to maintain a public stance that is contrary to what is said in private presents pollsters with no end of headaches.
“If people have got a public posture and private posture, it means that onlookers wouldn’t accept their public posture. Maybe they’ll even play both sides depending on who’s listening to them,” said Social Weather Stations president Dr Mahar Mangahas
“It could deceive. It just makes it harder … It’s a waste because you lose information and understanding about what opinions really are. But you have to deal with it. You live in a society where everybody has to take the consequences of what they say.”
According to Mangahas, even Duterte’s supporters react badly to the president’s vulgarity. But for most fans, he can seemingly do no wrong – even getting a pass earlier this month for joking about using marijuana.
“He may have tried marijuana yes – that's believable. But it doesn't mean he is an addict. So it’s forgivable to those who like him,” said a high ranking press officer with close contacts to the media.
“In all my years dealing with government, I have not found someone so real. He is so real that he speaks his mind, he makes crass jokes, he tells drug addicts to go to hell or at least to jail, he admits it when he finds a girl pretty, he will even go so far as to kiss [her] which is yucky – but then I realise that’s precisely what endears him to most Pinoys.
“He’s not fake. He doesn’t care what you think because he doesn’t care if you like him or not, but he happens to have been elected president and so he will do what he thinks he needs to do and his haters be damned.”