Duterte `the punisher’ fixes on revenge as economic woes mount

Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ president, speaks during the Philippine Economic Forum hosted by the Japan External Trade Organisation (Jetro) in Tokyo. (Bloomberg pic)

MANILA: A slumping currency, a brewing inflation crisis and one of the world’s worst performing stock markets should be enough to focus Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s attention on his nation’s economic woes.

But amid mounting concerns over his health, Duterte has at times appeared more interested in punishing vocal critics and drug pushers than lifting people’s living standards.

A Social Weather Stations poll released on Wednesday showed that 52% of Filipino families now consider themselves poor, 10 points higher than in March, and the highest since December 2014.

That could hurt Duterte as Filipino voters look to the May midterms, when half the Senate and all seats in the 297-member House of Representatives will be up for re-election, disrupting his legislative agenda for remainder of his six-year term.

“The inflation issue has really taken hold here,” Bob Herrera-Lim, managing director for Teneo Strategy in Manila, said in an email. “Reversing the perception that the government has done badly in managing inflation will take some time, and he hasn’t done enough.”

Duterte, nicknamed ‘The Punisher’ when he was mayor of Davao City, ordered unimpeded rice importation on Tuesday to rein in inflation and on Wednesday asked Congress to prioritise a bill that would fully liberalise overseas purchases of the staple grain. The move will allow private companies like San Miguel to import rice without the National Food Authority’s approval.

Calls to boost rice imports started as early as the first quarter of 2017 when supply began to dwindle. Duterte responded in April last year by firing a cabinet undersecretary who had pushed for more rice purchases. As supplies ran out, prices climbed to a record this year, prompting Duterte to finally approve more imports.

“We are aware of how much our fellow Filipinos are feeling the impact of rising prices of goods, that is why the government has already taken steps to address this,” the president’s spokesman Harry Roque said over the weekend, citing a number of additional measures Duterte had signed in the last few weeks. “We hope that these measures will help in lowering the prices of goods in local markets.”

Sacked, jailed

Yet as inflation accelerated to a fresh nine-year high last month and financial markets slumped, Duterte, in his public utterances at least, appeared more focused on other issues.

The Philippine Stock Exchange Index is heading for its lowest level since December 2016, eclipsing its low in June as overseas funds pulled out money for 30 straight days on Wednesday. The peso is among the worst-performing currencies in Asia this year, losing 8% year-to-date.

Last week he fired his Labor Undersecretary Joel Maglunsod, the last left-leaning official in his Cabinet, and he stepped up his attacks on Vice President Leni Robredo, who he says is too weak to become president in the event that he is forced to step down.

The week before, Philippine police arrested Duterte prominent critic Senator Antonio Trillanes after the president revoked an earlier amnesty.

Senator Leila de Lima, a thorn in the side of Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, remains in prison two years after being arrested on charges she strenuously denies while another critic, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, was removed from office in May.

“Duterte attacks his critics like this because that’s the way you do things as a small town mayor,” Steven Rood, fellow-in-residence at Manila-based research firm Social Weather Stations. “He doesn’t know how to build coalitions because he’s never had to do that, and he’s always been able to operate without constraints on discretion.”

Medical tests

Adding to the noise are concerns over the president’s physical condition, with around 45% of voters believing the president has health problems, and 55% saying they were worried about his health. Around 61% of voters said they thought Duterte’s health was a public matter.

While Duterte told his cabinet on Monday night that tests conducted last week showed he did not have a serious illness, Roque said the president would be keep his health status private as allowed by law.

“Negative news about the president’s health will heighten concerns from the Filipino public, particularly from Duterte supporters,” Aaron Rabena, program convenor for Manila-based Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress, a think-tank. “A deteriorating Duterte means doubt in the continuity of the kind of leadership and policies that he provides.”

Still, Duterte’s focus on his political opponents makes sense, said Jayeel Cornelio, director of the development studies program at Ateneo de Manila University.

He said the president’s enduring popularity has rested on making enemies of human rights activists, political opposition, journalists, and religious leaders.

“Given that there are many people who fall below the poverty threshold in the Philippines, a spike in inflation has huge consequences for the popularity of the man who came to power for promising to be on the side of the weak and vulnerable,” Cornelio said.