Surveys: Is President Duterte on the way down?

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RICARDO SALUDO

“HONEYMOON over,” headlined one article, quoting the opposition. “People are realizing change isn’t coming,” chimed in another, highlighting a leftist legislator’s comment.

For sure, those titles got more people clicking the online links or picking up the paper than a third publication’s matter-of-fact “SWS: Duterte’s net satisfaction rating down from ‘very good’ to ‘good’.”

But are the hot-selling headlines on the Third Quarter Social Weather Stations satisfaction and trust survey pointing to what really lies ahead for President Duterte? Probably not.

For most preceding presidents since Corazon Aquino, the ratings drop after a year or so in office usually leads to a rebound, then ups and downs. Only Joseph Estrada failed to recover till he was ousted two and a half years into his term.

Even Gloria Arroyo bounced back from her first-term decline to win the 2004 elections against the popular Fernando Poe Jr. (she really won, as election data showed—see http://www.manilatimes.net/who-won-the-2004-presidential-elections-1/100253/ and http://www.manilatimes.net/who-won-the-2004-presidential-elections-2/100448/).

How Duterte can rebound
One can expect at least as much for President Duterte’s ratings, if only because he is doing far better than his predecessor in key areas crucial to Filipinos: fighting crime and drugs, rolling out government programs, reining in corrupt appointees, and battling terrorism (see http://www.manilatimes.net/duterte-better-aquino/352868/ andhttp://www.manilatimes.net/duterte-better-aquino-2/353525/ ).

Moreover, the apparent reasons for Duterte’s ratings drop can be addressed. There were big declines in income strata D and E, down 17 and 32 points, respectively. High-profile initiatives to provide food and medical assistance would help. So would starting up mega-projects, which would boost employment and investment.

There were also significant declines among respondents who had much trust in the President, as well as those who had little trust.

The 10-point drop in satisfaction among high-trust Filipinos may suggest disappointment with the failure to deliver on much-publicized projects, which generated high expectations among true believers. This statistic points to the imperative to deliver on promised initiatives, especially building infrastructure and fighting corruption.

Meanwhile, the 41-point plunge among the distrustful underscores the need to avoid statements that are or seem to be utterly false, like the current line from the Philippine National Police that there is just one extra-judicial killing based on then-President Benigno Aquino’s Administrative Order 35. No amount of legalistic explanation can convince people that the PNP is telling the truth.

The government can also look more closely at its programs and communications in the Visayas, where ratings fell 30 points, compared with declines of 19 for Metro Manila, and 22 for the rest of Luzon.

Among the media and perception issues to probe is how the President and the government relates to the Catholic Church, which has a stronger presence and appeal in the Visayas. In its populous central region, 92 percent are Catholic, compared with 80 percent nationwide.

In sum, President Duterte can recover with doable action points: avoiding unsupportable statements, improving relations with the Church, providing livelihood and basic needs assistance to the poor, revving up infrastructure, and cracking down on corruption.

Why destabilizers will fail
What about the so-called destabilization? You know, the yellow and red conspiracy, as President Duterte labeled it. Won’t it get encouraged or boosted by the ratings drop?

Sure, but not enough to succeed against a leader who still enjoys the support of two-thirds of Filipinos, not to mention the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, both highly appreciative of Duterte’s pledge to defend police and troops against detractors.

That’s why even Liberal Party president Sen. Kiko Pangilinan downplays the destabilization scare. He said the ratings drop was expected amid recent controversies over teenage killings and the smuggling of P6.4 billion worth of shabu with alleged connivance of Customs officials.

Besides Duterte’s popularity and armed support, what makes destabilization a very long shot is the lack of a popular successor willing to take on the President.

Vice President Leni Robredo, who belongs to the LP, has stepped back from criticizing Duterte, and even pointedly skipped an opposition rally on the National Day of Protest on September 21. And she may herself be ousted if former senator and Duterte ally Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late strongman, wins his election protest.

Nor are Filipinos keen to see a return to the Aquino era, when today’s lawlessness, drugs, terrorism, corruption and smuggling problems escalated. Crime and contraband trebled under him. He also constantly defended allies against graft charges, even paying the bail for two LP stalwarts on trial at the anti-corruption Sandiganbayan court.

Still, there is no denying the desire, if not desperation, of certain anti-Duterte groups to remove him. International drug syndicates and extremist terror groups are probably out to kill him. LP stalwarts fearful of graft investigations would be keen to see regime change heading off accountability. And communist rebels and their political arm, once Duterte’s allies, are now facing security forces in battle.

So, expect more noise and agitation by the Aquino yellow, communist red, IS-black and white-powder agitators, whether in concert or on their own. But not victory.

Bottom line: President Duterte has hit the speed bump at the one-year mark. Now, he has to step on the gas and fuel reform, infrastructure, and eventually Charter change. Or else, ratings will indeed drop.

His change agenda must accelerate or deteriorate.

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