• Mindanao residents approve of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s handling of the siege of Marawi City last year and support the extension of martial law.
  • The lengthy reconstruction process is unlikely to erode Mr Duterte’s popularity.
  • Conflict with communist rebels threatens infrastructure development in Mindanao, a key part of government plans to spread prosperity beyond Manila. 

Filipinos in Mindanao strongly approve of President Rodrigo Duterte’s handling of the conflict against Islamist insurgents in Marawi City and support the extension of martial law across the island. However, martial law and the suspension of talks with communist rebels will hinder the government’s plans to secure long-term development in the area.

In our survey of 970 people in Mindanao last December, 81 per cent thought Mr Duterte did a “good” or “very good” job in handling the conflict in Marawi. 

The occupation of Marawi by the Maute group, a Filipino Islamist outfit with links to Isis, led to a five-month siege by government troops last year before Mr Duterte declared the city “liberated” in October. Our survey suggests that Mindanao voters are willing to give Mr Duterte time to rebuild the city, with almost three-quarters of respondents expecting the rehabilitation of Marawi to take “more than a year”. The government has budgeted 46.6bn pesos ($890.5m) for reconstruction and provides regular updates on the rehabilitation process, including donations received.

The approval of Mr Duterte’s handling of the conflict contrasts with how his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, was castigated for his response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, part of the reason that Mr Aquino’s chosen successor lost to Mr Duterte in the presidential election.

Bangon Marawi, the government body overseeing the reconstruction of Marawi, said it would not be completed until Mr Duterte’s term ended in 2022. Congress in December approved a one-year extension of martial law across Mindanao, the second time it has been extended since it was first put in place by Mr Duterte in May 2017. In our survey, conducted before congress made its decision, 60 per cent of respondents approved of an extension.

The Supreme Court ruled that congress, dominated by Mr Duterte’s allies, may extend martial law as it sees fit, making extensions up to 2022 possible. House speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said last year that he was open to extensions so that development in Mindanao could be accelerated.

Mindanao matters

Mindanao is home to 40 per cent of the Filipino poor and Mr Duterte has made his home island central to his plans to spread prosperity beyond Manila through social investment and infrastructure development. 

The government says that martial law speeds up the bidding process for infrastructure projects. We do not think this will be the case because martial law does not suspend complicated regulations. 

The government also said martial law allowed military personnel to be mobilised for construction projects. Given the ongoing reconstruction in Marawi and the need to maintain security elsewhere, we do not think the military has the necessary manpower to help with reconstruction. 

Mindanao is already facing a manpower shortage because of a construction boom, and government data show that road building slowed last year when compared to 2016, even in conflict-free areas. 

This does not bode well for a set of infrastructure projects, collectively worth 199bn pesos, open to bids this year. These include Mindanao’s first railway, called a game-changer by the government. Construction has not yet begun and it is unlikely to be completed by next year’s deadline.

In a separate development, Mr Duterte suspended talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army in November, and in December declared the group a terrorist organisation. The combined impact of martial law and the suspension of peace talks with the communists, which could result in more fighting in Mindanao, means development projects face further delays and investors may grow wary. Earlier this week, 60 legislators called on Mr Duterte to restart peace talks with the rebels. It is unlikely that Mr Duterte will agree. 

Construction companies typically avoid conflict areas in Mindanao because of the risk of damage to their projects and equipment. If a decades-old conflict with the communists flares up again, efforts to attract vital foreign investment will suffer.

Prinz Magtulis, Philippines Researcher, FT Confidential Research

FT Confidential Research is an independent research service from the Financial Times, providing in-depth analysis of and statistical insight into China and south-east 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.