• Political sentiment in the Philippines rose for the first time since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power a year ago, the latest FT Confidential Research Political Sentiment Index shows.
  • Support among the poor, which had declined in the previous two surveys, regained some ground in the second quarter.
  • Mr Duterte’s coalition in the legislature thwarted the opposition on many issues, including the government’s war on drugs and the imposition of martial law in the southern Philippines.

Support for Mr Duterte recovered in the second quarter, partly because his congressional allies have silenced opposition to his government. Our Political Sentiment Index rose 2.2 points to 55.5 from 53.3 in the first quarter, but remained well below its level of 69.4 a year earlier.

This was the first time that our index, which measures the country’s political climate over the coming six months, has improved under Mr Duterte, who completed a year in office on June 30 (see chart).

Stabilising support

A breakdown of our survey shows that Mr Duterte has regained some support among the poor, who appeared to lose trust in him as they bore the brunt of a war on drugs that has reportedly claimed 9,000 lives. 

Among respondents, 39 per cent of those with annual earnings of 60,000 pesos to 120,000 pesos ($1,200 to $2,400) saw the political climate improving over the next six months. This was up from 33 per cent in the first quarter. Most people in this group fall below the government’s poverty threshold of 108,768 pesos annual income.

Among the poorest income group in our survey, those earning less than 60,000 pesos a year, 35 per cent are optimistic, up from 31 per cent in the first three months of 2017 (see chart).

Drug war

The partial recovery in support for Mr Duterte among the poor may owe much to his allies in the House of Representatives, who have deflected criticism from the already outnumbered opposition, most notably on the war on drugs. 

Legislators have diverted attention from this controversial policy to other issues, including the trade in illegal drugs inside the country’s biggest prison. Senator Leila de Lima, a critic of Mr Duterte who chaired a senate inquiry into the war on drugs last year, was jailed for involvement in the prison drugs trade in February.

The lower house’s inquiry into Ms De Lima’s alleged involvement has reduced public opposition to the war on drugs. Popular opinion was already against Ms De Lima, who was justice secretary during the previous administration of Benigno Aquino, widely seen as elitist and incapable of solving the problems of the poor.

Mr Duterte’s influence over the legislature is particularly pronounced in the lower house, where his ruling party, PDP-Laban, holds 121 out of 293 seats. The party has formed alliances with four others to corner 206 seats, or 70 per cent of the legislative body (see chart). 

In May, this enabled the president’s allies to easily dismiss an impeachment complaint against Mr Duterte over alleged state-sponsored killings in the war on drugs.

Martial law in Mindanao

Improving political sentiment gave Mr Duterte enough political capital to declare martial law in the southern island of Mindanao on May 23, following the occupation of Marawi city by militants affiliated to Isis. 

Mr Duterte was able to disregard accusations that he would use martial law to prolong his rule in a similar fashion to former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr, who was in power for 30 years and acquired a personal fortune. 

Mr Duterte’s declaration of martial law was given immediate legitimacy by congress, which voted it through without a formal review, ignoring a constitutional requirement. The Supreme Court also supported it. 

The next milestone will be the extension of martial law beyond the 60-day limit that ends on July 23. Congress looks likely to grant an extension as soon as it is requested. 

We believe, however, that congressional support can only do so much to shield Mr Duterte from public criticism if he decides to prolong military rule. 

Extending it to ensure national security in the face of terrorism may backfire. It would show that Mr Duterte, despite his strongman image, is struggling to end the extremism that has plagued Mindanao for decades.

A long period of martial law and the political controversy this would entail could lead to the poor again withdrawing their support for Mr Duterte and demanding that he address their needs. 

If so, his allies in congress may take up the cudgels for him, or succumb to public criticism and allow the presidency to be weakened.

— Prinz Magtulis, Philippines Researcher

FT Confidential Research is an independent research service from the Financial Times, providing in-depth analysis of and statistical insight into China and Southeast Asia. Our team of researchers in these key markets combine findings from our proprietary surveys with on-the-ground research to provide predictive analysis for investors.