THAT may well be the question behind the dip in Pulse Asia trust and approval ratings, and the stalled Social Weather Stations grade of President Rodrigo Duterte: What will he do to impress us after decimating drugs?
With four out of every five Filipinos surveyed feeling safer on the streets, Duterte has addressed what may well be the top national problem for the citizenry — and the key to his amazing landslide election victory.
After all, since 2013, more than 3 million crimes have been committed, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. That’s at least 5 million victims, assuming a low average of 1.7 victims per crime. And if each victim has just five close family or friends, that’s 25 million more Filipinos for whom crime is pretty much the No. 1 problem for kith and kin.
Add to those 35 million crime-spooked Filipinos the 2 million or so drug addicts and their families, and one begins to see why a foul-mouthed mayor from faraway Davao with nil resources beat nationally known rivals with mammoth campaign chests, simply by promising to wipe out crime, while other presidentiables said nothing about it.
Ups and downs at the top
Duterte’s SWS net satisfaction rating of well over 60 percent, mirrors those of three other presidents who, after nine months, showed success in addressing the big problems that got them elected.
In March 1987, Corazon Aquino was cheered for restoring democracy, with nine out of ten voters ratifying her new Constitution. By April 1993, Fidel Ramos had taken emergency measures to end daily, hours-long brownouts. And in April 1999, Joseph Estrada gained with the regionwide rebound from the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
What happens next depends on whether President Duterte can go beyond just solving the crime problem, and get his agenda going and keep the bad news at bay.
The ratings of presidents are again instructive. Corazon Aquino saw her net satisfaction ratings plunge to +36 in October 1987, just six months after hitting +69 in March. Reasons: coup attempts, “Kamag-anak Inc.” graft allegations against her clan, and the massacre of protesting farmers on Mendiola Bridge near Malacañang Palace.
Ramos followed up his electrifying success with an economic liberalization program that boosted growth, jobs and investment. Airline and telecom monopolies were ended, enhancing those key public services. Military camps were sold, creating the Bonifacio Global City and other boomtowns. Result: Ramos’s SWS ratings stayed above or not much below +60 for two years.
Then they went south, plummeting to +24 in March 1995, and further to +1 in October and +2 in December that year. Why the plunge? The 1995 rice shortage, due to poor harvests during the El Niño drought.
After rice imports stabilized supply and prices, Ramos’s ratings bounced back as the Philippines boomed, prompting investors to call it Asia’s new tiger. Net satisfaction hit double-digits in 1996 and even +50 in April 1997. Then the Asian crisis struck.
Also hit by bad news was Joseph Estrada, whose grade of +60 or more lost more than half by October 1999 amid corruption allegations. Estrada replaced several agency heads, but ratings went further south, down to +5 in March 2000, after Estrada himself was accused of sleaze. Ten months later he was ousted in the January 2001 uprising.
Survey lessons for Digong
So, what’s the takeaway for Duterte from all this?
Lesson No. 1: Keep your nose clean. After people cheer the initial gains, especially against the big problems they elected the leader to solve, the nation becomes less forgiving of failings, most especially graft.
So, Duterte is wise to follow up his war on crime and drugs with his anti-corruption campaign, with high-level firings showing his commitment to integrity, and starkly contrasting with his predecessor’s coddling of allies, schoolmates and shooting buddies.
Lesson No. 2: Keep the ricebowl full. Nothing like a rice shortage or price spiral to rapidly erode popularity. Ramos was soaring above or near +60 for over two years, but saw his grade halved amid shoppers queueing for the staple.
The past week, one Palace controversy touched on both graft and rice. President Duterte fired Undersecretary Maia Chiara Halmen Valdez for approving rice importations by private firms, which Duterte believed would hurt farmers by driving down prices.
Valdez worked for Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., one of Duterte’s closest advisers, and chairman of the National Food Authority Council, which oversees grains policy. Evasco has defended Valdez, and he himself has approved rice imports.
After her dismissal, Valdez warned that her boss’s office was being undermined by NFA Administrator Jose Aquino, whom Evasco wanted out for refusing to obey the NFA Council, and Agriculture Secretary Manuel Piñol.
Aquino favors government-to-government importations, while Piñol opposes all rice from abroad, arguing that the first-quarter bumper harvest, up 200,000 metric tons from last year, was enough for the country’s needs.
What may eventually show who’s right is the Filipino ricebowl. If the staple in it dwindles anytime this year, so would Duterte’s ratings.
Well before things get there, he should get a full report on expected rice consumption, production, and imports this year, with both normal, low-yield, and calamity scenarios.
In December, the US Department of Agriculture forecast that the Philippines needs to import 1.4 million tons this year, to augment a projected harvest of 11.5 million tons. If the country buys no grain from abroad, output needs to rise by 12 percent.
That may be too iffy to wager the President’s ratings on — unless smuggling fills the gap left by restricted NFA-sanctioned imports, as contraband rice did in the past regime.
Better to stock too much rice in government warehouses than dirty one’s nose keeping 100 million bowls full.