WHEN a leader’s survey ratings decline among the poor and in the countryside, what should he do? Obviously, there is need for more attention and action on the concerns of those showing some disaffection.
Those concerns are the basics: jobs, cost of living, peace and order, and public services, including disaster assistance.
The good news is, most of those issues seem to be looking up. Unemployment is down from last year, and inflation is a tame 3.4 percent. Eight out of 10 Filipinos feels safer, and both drugs and crime are sharply down. So, ratings should stay high, right?
That’s not the way smart leaders think. Rather, they wonder where problems may arise or are actually creeping up.
Indeed, what should worry the administration is that President Rodrigo Duterte’s ratings dipped among the poor and in rural areas despite falling joblessness, moderate prices, and safer streets.
Why isn’t all that lifting his ratings among the D and E income strata, and the countryside, where more of the poor are.
Well, it may have something to do with what the President is seen to be focusing attention and action on.
For sure, fighting drugs, crime and corruption is high on his agenda, and this has surely helped keep his ratings high overall. Indeed, keeping the excellent trust level of 80 percent or more through nearly a whole year in office, may be unprecedented.
What about jobs and prices, which score even higher in the hierarchy of public concerns? Is President Duterte seen to be helping the poor with their livelihood and the cost of living? Has he launched major initiatives to generate jobs for low-income workers, or to provide basic needs at affordable prices or for free?
Well, not really. In recent months, the big news about Duterte was mostly about the war on drugs, verbal jousts with critics here and abroad, maritime issues with China, the firing of officials over alleged anomalies, and lately, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit, and phone calls with US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
For sure, all that is largely positive for Duterte, but what’s in it for the poor and the boondocks? In truth, maybe not that much, at least from their angle.
So, for those short of cash or out of work, the President doesn’t seem much concerned or occupied with their woes. Nor do rural folk see much gain for them in wiping out city-based narco-syndicates, dismissing top officials in Manila, or dealing with foreign affairs.
And that may be the reason for tiny leaks in Duterte’s impressive survey success.
The rice and fall of Presidents
The problem, of course, is that pinpricks can turn into gaping wounds if untended. Luckily, the planned trebling of infrastructure spending, along with continued massive investment by major conglomerates, will likely generate more low-skill jobs needed by the poor. And with such projects spanning the countryside, rural areas would also gain.
Still, there are potential problems that could erode public approval and trust, especially among low-income and rural Filipinos now showing some disaffection.
One possible threat to Duterte’s high grades is rice prices and supplies. This writer has raised this concern before, and so has the Foundation for Economic Freedom, which warned of shortages if imports are totally stopped.
One FEF member, economist Romy Bernardo, noted that the current 12-day buffer is way below the 30 days needed for the lean months of July to September.
A rice shortage or price spiral is political dynamite. Like Duterte, Fidel Ramos also enjoyed sustained high ratings from the start of his presidency, with net satisfaction at plus60 percent or more for two years. Then, the 1995 rice crisis, spawned by the El Niño drought, sent Ramos’s net rating to plus 1 percent.
Recently, the President stopped rice imports to avoid collapsing prices and hurting farmers. But he has wisely given the nod for the Task Force Bigas newly formed by Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol to do a nationwide inventory of warehouses to see if there is enough stock, especially for the lean months.
Bottom line: If rice does get scarce or pricey, guess whom people will blame for blocking imports.
When disaster strikes
Another threat that should worry Duterte’s pollster guys is natural calamity. Earthquakes all over the country have already stretched disaster relief capabilities, even without the “Big One” predicted to hit Metro Manila sooner or later. And the typhoon season isn’t even here yet.
Disaster readiness may not be enough, especially with a recent Commission on Audit report noting that the Office of Civil Defense, the main disaster response agency under the Department of National Defense, is delayed in getting the bulk of its calamity supplies and equipment ordered in past years.
This is the same agency that in 2012, state auditors found to have reported no significant accomplishments in its mandate of capability-building in disaster readiness among local government units. No wonder the government fell woefully short in responding to Supertyphoon Yolanda in November 2013.
And the OCD’s deficiencies could be traced to the past administration’s refusal to implement key provisions of the 2010 National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, including the billion-peso program to build up OCD into a full-fledged calamity agency like America’s Federal Emergency Management Administration.
Now, what would happen if the Big One strikes, or another Yolanda? And if Filipinos are engulfed by floods or trapped in collapsed buildings, what will they remember about the President’s initiatives to be ready for rough times?
So, the lesson in President Duterte’s slight dips in ratings is the need for him to be seen as giving attention and taking action on the jobs, prices, calamities, and other concerns of the poor and the countryside.
Citizens do not expect the President to solve every problem. But he must at least do something about it. That wins approval and trust every time.
One final advisory: US President Trump’s invitation to visit the White House, despite loud voices against hosting an alleged mass murder instigator, may well mean that Trump sees more than a slim chance of war in Korea and possibly a wider conflict, and the Pentagon and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff asked Trump to woo PRRD into allowing use of PH air and naval bases for American forces.
PRRD should call a full National Security Council or executive committee meeting ASAP to decide how the Philippines will respond to US requests to escalate force rotations in the country and use our bases if there is war.
Three key conditions we should demand if we allow US deployment and bases use:
1) No nuclear weapons brought into the country.
2) Full disclosure of where all US forces in the country are, so we know which areas may suffer collateral damage if these forces are attacked.
3) Massive financial and material aid, including battle rescue and relief, for the Philippines, and most urgently, for our 60,000 Filipinos in South Korea.