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The secret behind his popularity

Ana P. Santos, Manila
September 9, 2016

By now, the world is well-acquainted with the Philippine president as an unconventional foul-mouthed leader. But what the world may not understand is his high popularity among the Filipino people. Ana P. Santos reports.

Philippinen Präsident Rodrigo Duterte
Image: Reuters/N. Celis

On August 31, 128 overseas Filipino workers were repatriated from Saudi Arabia. When plummeting oil prices sent Saudi Arabia spiraling into an economic crisis, the company they worked for declared bankruptcy and the workers were left with no job, no pay and no means to return home.

Labor groups estimate that there are about 12,000 Filipino workers affected by the Saudi Arabia economic crisis. About 60 percent availed themselves of the repatriation program.

At the airport in Manila, they were met by President Rodrigo Duterte who welcomed the workers back to the country and promised to help them. He also said that when he learned about their situation, he was ready to go to Saudi Arabia himself and bring them back home.

'Refreshing authenticity'

"I think voters saw his authenticity and were refreshed by it," said Pia Ranada Robles who, as one of the journalists embedded with Duterte during his campaign, had a front row seat to Duterte's interactions with voters.

"Duterte spoke in a very familiar way, with his cursing, his funny stories, his jokes, even his flirting with women. These all came across as very authentic, very human, not manufactured," said Robles regarding Duterte's appeal that won him the presidency with more than 16 million votes.

His closest opponent, Manuel Roxas, the standard bearer of the past administration's Liberal Party, scored only 9.9 million votes.

Duterte's branding as an iron-fisted leader with a soft-heart who promises to bring change resonates with both the rich and the poor. "The more affluent were attracted by his promise of imposing discipline to chaotic urban life - primarily the concern of the middle to upper class. The poor were attracted by his empathy, his promise to take care of them, to fight for them," Robles explained.

The promise to fight for them

More than 26 percent of the Filipino population is classified as poor. Despite the Southeast Asian nation's impressive economic performance over the past few years, an estimated 4,000 Filipinos continue to leave the country every day to work abroad, hoping for a better life.

The mixture of hope, dreams and desperation that characterize the life of an average Filipino is probably best encapsulated in the overseas Filipino worker, more commonly known as an OFW.

There are about 10 million Filipinos around the globe who are guest workers - with the largest group being in the Middle East. OFWs are often employed in low-paying service jobs and under harsh working conditions. Stories of maltreatment and abuse are as common as stories of isolation and pain at being separated from their families for years at a time.

Still, they leave because they say that the $400 (356 euros) per month they make as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia is still better than what they can earn in the Philippines.

OFWs are glorified as modern day heroes, extolled for their sacrifice and thanked for their contribution of about $25 billion (22.2 billion euros) a year in remittances or about 8 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Overseas workers are a major economic pillar for the Philippines, but for years, OFWs have felt neglected by the government in times of need.

Labor group Migrante International, who alerted the government about the state of overseas workers as early as 2014, was appreciative of the Duterte administration's quick action.

"The past government took on a 'wait-and-see' attitude when we told them the workers' crisis. The Duterte administration took an immediate approach by organizing an inter-agency meeting, sending a high-level mission to Saudi and declaring the issue a humanitarian crisis," said Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International.

Martinez said that the quick resolution leaves them hopeful that Duterte will make good on his promise to end contractualization, the practice of hiring employees and then terminating them after 5 months to avoid paying benefits that come with permanent employment - and thus address the root of why Filipinos continue to leave the country.

"It is not just a drug-free, corruption-free Philippines that we want. We also want to address the causes of poverty," said Martinez.

Adrian Ariate, 39, was an OFW in Saudi Arabia for about a year when he and 20 others were laid off by his company. Ariate returned to the Philippines last July 19; he was not among those who were met at the airport by the president but he believes that this government will fight for him and uphold his rights.

"I believe this president when he says he will do whatever he can to help us OFWs," Ariate told DW in a phone interview.

The good and the bad

Ariate's statement pretty much sums up what polls and surveys show: Duterte won the votes of Filipinos but he has also gained what is hardest for any politician to come by - their trust.

According to a recent nationwide survey by Pulse Asia, 91 percent of Filipinos trust Duterte.

Shortly before he left for the ASEAN Summit in Laos and made that now infamous comment about cursing President Barack Obama if questioned about the extrajudicial killings, a bomb exploded in Duterte's hometown of Davao killing 14 and injuring 67 others.

Duterte gets up close and personal

Within the next couple of hours, pictures of Duterte at the scene of the explosion, visiting the families of the dead and even saying goodbye by planting a kiss on one of the fatalities made the rounds on social media.

Patti Malay, an advertising executive, was one of those touched by the photos. Still, she remains ambivalent about him. "I don't think anyone can doubt his heart for the people. But for everything else, he doesn't inspire confidence."

Filipinos want and need reform and 16 million of them hinged their hopes on Duterte's promise to bring it.

But many of Duterte's promises are executed with the same impulsiveness as his off-the-cuff remarks with the elements of strategy and critical assessment missing from the equation.

The two months he has been in office has been filled with controversy with the extrajudicial killings linked to the crackdown on drugs taking center stage. It has drawn outrage from the international community but the administration proudly lays claim to it as an achievement, a concrete step towards achieving a drug-free Philippines. In an interview, DW asked chief of police Ronald dela Rosa a basic question: "When will the killings end?"

"When we have a drug-free Philippines," dela Rosa responded. "When we have rehabilitated all the addicts."