Rodrigo Duterte’s honeymoon period is coming to an end after one year in office

First day on the job.
First day on the job.
Image: AP/Radio Television Malacanang
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Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippine presidency with a promise that “change is coming,” appealing to voters tired of an inefficient government. He pledged to get rid of drugs, crime, and corruption in three to six months—or step aside if he failed. One year into his six-year term, he’s still working on fulfilling those promises, although he looks unlikely to step aside anytime soon. Here’s where things stand now:

Peace and order

In March, the Philippine National Police (PNP) reported that the number of focused crimes like homicide, robbery, and theft had decreased since Duterte started his term. From last July to the end of March, the police recorded about 79,000 such cases, down from nearly 160,000 during the same period a year ago. Of the more than 9,400 homicide cases during that period, 19.6% were drug-related, 20.1% were not, and 60.3% were still under investigation, according to the police.

But the trustworthiness of official numbers is in doubt. The government itself has used conflicting data. Duterte routinely says there are 4 million drug addicts in the country, but the Dangerous Drugs Board reported the number is closer to 1.8 million. In May, Duterte fired the board’s head over the contradictory statistics—and stuck to 4 million.

Human Rights Watch describes Duterte’s first year as a “human rights calamity.” It says at least 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers have been killed in his war on drugs, with vigilantes and police conducting many “extrajudicial killings.”

Duterte also faces a serious conflict in Marawi, a city on the southern island of Mindanao that’s been under siege from ISIL-linked terrorists since May 23. He declared martial law on the island just hours after the initial attack, but the fighting continues, with the death toll surpassing 400 this week, including dozens of civilians and over 70 troops.

As for corruption, the Philippines slipped a bit in the “Corruption Perceptions Index” published by Transparency International. In 2015, the nation was rated 95th out of 176 nations. Last year it fell to 101.

The Philippines and China  

During an election debate, Duterte said that he would ride a jet ski to contested areas of the South China Sea carrying a Philippine flag. He also planned to send troops to better occupy islands under Philippine control.

But Duterte quickly changed his tune. In April he canceled a trip to a disputed island after a warning from China, which claims nearly the entire waterway, including areas that under international should belong to the Philippines. “They said, do not go there… I will correct myself because we value our friendship with China,” he said.

That “friendship” blossomed last October, when Duterte made a state visit to Beijing. He told his hosts, “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow” and “I announce my separation from the United States,” adding that he would “be dependent” on China for a long time. Duterte has now made two visits to China, and in neither one were the territorial disputes in the South China Sea discussed.

Instead Duterte has focused on strengthening economic ties with China. During his first trip, Duterte secured pledges from China for up to $24 billion worth of investment, loans, and financing to improve the Philippines woefully inadequate infrastructure. His administration insists such assistance won’t result in the Philippines falling into a debt trap. Others aren’t so sure.

The economy

Philippine stocks have gained just 0.2% since Duterte took office, compared to a gain of over 27% in the first year of the previous administration. The peso recently fell to its lowest level in nearly 11 years against the dollar, and is expected to drop further still. In the first three months of this year, GDP grew by 6.4% from a year earlier. That was below forecasts of 6.8% and the slowest pace since the last quarter of 2015.

Still, investors and many Filipinos remain positive about the country’s future. Economic growth is expected to come in at 6.5% for the year, giving the Philippines one of the fastest rates in emerging markets. Foreign direct investments in 2016 reached $7.9 billion, a 40.7% increase from 2015, and have continued to grow this year.

The slowdown in GDP growth in the first quarter wasn’t as bad as it seemed, argues John Paolo Rivera, co-chair of the Asia Pacific Business & Economics Research Society. He notes that the first quarter of 2016, unlike this year, came during an election period, with campaign spending by candidates big and small boosting the economic numbers.

Rivera says he’s looking forward to the effects of the foreign investments discussed during Duterte’s various state visits. He believes the administration’s various infrastructure projects will increase spending, provide jobs, and lead to more stable and inclusive growth.

Apart from economic indicators, he says, it’s also worth checking how people’s everyday lives are affected. “This is a battle between what the numbers say and what the people actually feel,” he says.

Most Filipinos, across all classes, still trust in Duterte. Surveys conducted by Social Weather Station show that 80% of Filipinos have “much trust” in the president and 75% are “satisfied” with his performance. People are also mostly satisfied with the administration’s efforts to help the poor and solve the problem of extrajudicial killings.

Still, there are also signs of slippage in Duterte’s popularity. In five categories in the most recent survey, his administration fell from “very good” to “good.” Among those categories were fighting crime, providing jobs, and defending the country’s territorial rights.

One year in, Duterte’s honeymoon period with the Philippine public is coming to the end.