OPINION: The verdict starts to come in

Manolo Quezon - The Explainer

Posted at Dec 20 2016 05:08 AM

In 1922, our political class divided on the issue of cooperation with the American Governor-General Leonard Wood. At the heart of the division was a question: who would dictate what politicians did? Would it be the party, on the parliamentary principle of party control, or would it be public opinion? 

In a parliamentary system you find the leader of the party, the prime minister, defending his actions every week in the face of the opposition. In a government of public opinion, you have presidents explaining their decisions and actions to the public, on the principle that in a system of checks and balances, an informed public will, in turn, apply the brakes to Congress, which is filled with people who want to be the next president, and the courts, which can apply the brakes on a government’s programs and policies.

Now this was an era before public opinion polling or surveys. And so to gauge public opinion, leaders would float trial balloons to see if they were shot down or allowed to fly by the public.  

To this day, this style of testing public opinion is used by the current president who in more ways than one, is a throwback to the older era of presidential leadership.

But of course we’ve had opinion polling since the late 50s and continuously since EDSA. The latest SWS survey has now taken a snapshot of public opinion on the president twice since he assumed office.

Mahar Mangahas in his column over the weekend observed that the general trend is for presidents to have honeymoon periods. What no one can predict is how long the honeymoon will last. 

Cory Aquino’s lasted about a year; FVR’s, two a half-years, Estrada a year, while GMA was the only president who had no honeymoon at all. The previous president’s lasted an unprecedented three years. 

The President’s ratings at this point, he says, are comparable to Ramos’s and Estrada’s. 

Back in October, an article in The Diplomat even argued that on the whole, the president’s ratings are par for the course. 

Back in September I’d observed in my Explainer column that there were three tiny, but worth watching, changes in the president’s standing. They were: little trust doubled in the Visayas, grew tenfold among ABC, and doubled among the poorest of the poor, class E, tripled among 18-24 year olds, and doubled among 45-54 years old. Again, these growths in little trust were tiny compared to the whole. But any Palace official worth their salt would have studied them and acted to ensure the next survey would change.

And that survey is now here, taken December 3-6. It shows that satisfaction grew by 9 points among 18-24 year olds, (the millenials everyone has been praising because they erupted in protest over the Marcos burial!) and by 3 points among 45-54 year olds (those who are parents). Again tiny amounts but it shows the reduction has stopped.

In nearly every part of the country, the president’s satisfaction has increased, except, mysteriously enough, in Mindanao, the only part where it fell –by six points. Just as it dropped among rural Filipinos by a tiny 3 points. Class E also fell: continuing the erosion of the group representing the poorest of the poor.

On the whole we can see why Mahar Mangahas says the honeymoon is holding. In fact he points out only one thing as worth pondering:

The mixed feelings the public has about the president’s statements about foreign officials. A slight majority is OK with it –with only slightly over a quarter of Filipinos being strongly OK with it; and a third against it. It’s the 17% percent who are undecided who bear watching, though. Sooner or later they will make up their mind and yesterday’s majority can become tomorrow’s minority –or vice-versa.

The numbers are a snapshot but like every picture the devil is in the details. Consider the last, September survey, where a whoping 84% were pretty much satisfied with the drug war.

Only for a whopping 94% to also have the opinion that it’s important to keep drug suspects alive.

Back then I pointed out, what this really means is public opinion was actually strongly against the drug war as it’s being carried out. Which is obvious because hardly anyone will ever say they’re OK with illegal drugs. But also: hardly anyone will say they’re OK with just killing people in the streets.

Just yesterday, a kind of follow-up to the September question was released by SWS. It's similar to the last survey where most expressed approval of the drug war... 

but then an even bigger majority in the next question, said people shouldn't be killed.

I believe the former is a "socially acceptable answer," after all, who could go out and say they don't want a crackdown on illegal drugs? But the latter is what people really feel.

So far is it goes, all this tells us is what we already knew –wth the addition that public opinion hasn’t really changed between September and December.

The real shocker came in the form of this question, and the answer to it:

Esentially, 78% of respondents were very to somewhat worried that someone from their family would be a victim of extra-judicial killings. Less than a quarter –22%-- were not too, to, not worried at all, about that possibility. 

Note that the “very worried part” exceeds the plurality the President received in May, 2016. In fact, it’s an even bigger percentage however you measure it, because the President’s electoral plurality was a portion of people who actually voted; the survey attempts to measure what the public at large feels, whether they voted or not.

Even the next question –how serious pople believe the extra-judicial killing situation is, ought to make the Palace take pause. 

You can see that 39% of the respondents believed the problem is “very serious.” Combined with those who think it’s “somewhat serious,” the total comes out to 69%, with 22% undecided and only 9% thinking it’s “somewhat not serious” or “not serious at all.” 

The institution that bears the brunt of the goings-on, the Philippine National Police, faces public doubts about its assertion that many of those killed in police operations died because they tried to resist arrest. Here, 42% of respondents said they were unsure. Roughly a quarter of people don’t believe the police while another quarter seem to believe the cops.

It’s only with this next question that the Palace might see a ray of sunshine to justify its ongoing policy. A majority of people are of the opinion that the drug problem has decreased in their area: 56% which is a large majority indeed. Combined with those who “somewhat” agree, that adds up to a fearsome 88% percent.

And the next question should give higher-ups, at least, a moment of self-congratulation. Even if the police, as an institution, are under the shadow of public doubt, the administration –and here one would include not just the President, but his cabinet and possibly even the head of the police—are considered somewhat to very serious about solving the killings: a total of 60%. 

What this suggests to me is that the public is of a mind as to the following: the killings are not only wrong, but they are making people fearful that a loved one might become a victim. This suggests –when you consider the jury being out on whether the police are believable or not—that people are assigning culpability to the rank-and-file cops, but continue, as of now, to hold the President and his senior subordinates blameless.

The next few months will tell whether the large number of undecided people on all these questions: the dangers posed to the broader public by the killings; the credibility of the police; the culpability, or lack of it, of the President and his senior officials, will hold or not.

But as the historian Patricio Abinales put it in a Facebook post: “First time ever since the Japanese occupation has there been such pervasive fear. Under martial it was fear of imprisonment not unexpected death.” A chilling conclusion and one, it seems, a large percentage of the population shares.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.