70 percent

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Other world leaders would kill to have approval ratings in the 70s in their midterm. President Duterte should be sleeping well, confident that he continues to enjoy the approval of three-fourths of the population.

He must put this popularity to good use, ignoring coup rumors and instead focusing on dealing with the gut issues: soaring prices, shrinking purchasing power, unemployment and underemployment.

Considering his popularity, perhaps he might even want to try being a unifying force, a father to all Filipinos, instead of categorizing people into reds, yellows and what have you.

Fidel Ramos, during his presidency, never attained Duterte’s dizzyingly high ratings in the 80s. But FVR rallied Filipinos as “Team Philippines” and promoted a can-do spirit in the slogan, “kaya natin ito (we can do this)” combined with his thumbs-up trademark sign.

Today in contrast, Filipinos seem to be constantly at war with each other. A popular president should be able to change this sad state of affairs instead of fomenting it.

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As in the previous quarter, we’re again getting confusing results from the two major pollsters. The third quarter survey results of Social Weather Stations (SWS) showed a five-point improvement in the ratings of President Duterte, with 70 percent gross approval.

This figure is close to the 75 percent approval and 72 percent trust ratings that he garnered in the third quarter survey conducted by Pulse Asia. The marked difference is that while the change in the SWS poll was an improvement, Duterte suffered a steep drop in both approval and trust ratings in the Pulse Asia poll, with sharp inflation particularly in food prices seen by the pollster as a major cause.

For the second quarter, the results were the reverse for the two pollsters, with Duterte’s numbers plummeting in the SWS survey while remaining high in Pulse Asia.

Whether the numbers fell or improved, approval ratings in the 70s are impressively high as a president enters his midterm. So far, as shown in the surveys, Duterte’s high ratings don’t seem to be transferable, with several of his close aides languishing in the surveys for the 2019 Senate race. But then he also couldn’t make people vote for his running mate Alan Peter Cayetano in 2016.

Still, even if Duterte’s popularity is non-transferable, having the approval of three-fourths of the population makes governance easier in this country. That’s strong persuasive power over the chronically self-absorbed members of the House of Representatives, a.k.a. the HOR, and even over local government executives.

This kind of popularity can make a president swat any sniping opposition member like a gnat, and dismiss any rumor of destabilization or ouster plot. There’s no way a president with 70 percent approval rating can be ousted in this country, whether by impeachment or coup d’etat or people power.

And there’s no need to wag the dog – which is what this “Red October” scenario is starting to look like. Duterte should tell his security officials to just stay vigilant but to keep quiet about any intel, whether raw or fully verified, on threats to his hold on power.

Unless Duterte plans to declare a revolutionary government and have all the alleged Red October conspirators arrested – which could destabilize the country enough to ruin the economy – he should show that he is fully focused on putting sufficient and affordable food on the table of every household rather than putting his critics in jail without bail.

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For sure the President is aware of another Pulse Asia survey showing that economic issues are the top concerns of Filipinos. Prices, salaries, jobs, poverty reduction – these were at the top of the list. Not surprisingly, at the bottom of the list was Charter change, which is needed for the push for federalism. Even criminality and peace efforts didn’t get high ranking.

In fact, opposition politicians can improve their chances in the midterm elections if they tackle economic woes – not by directly hitting Duterte, but by proposing solid measures to bring down prices. This is the assessment of Dindo Manhit, founder and managing director of the advisory and consultancy group Stratbase.

Manhit, who faced “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News last week together with Pulse Asia president Ronald Holmes, noted that Duterte has successfully distanced himself from economic issues. Duterte appears to have truly left these matters entirely to his economic team. And it looks like he continues to listen to them when it comes to public criticism of his Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion or TRAIN law.

But economic woes aren’t easing soon, and even the poor are starting to say they’re being run over by the TRAIN. At the Senate, only its president Vicente Sotto III is supporting TRAIN 2.

Ordinary people are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of taxes on their lives. They don’t blame Carlos Dominguez, Ernesto Pernia or Benjamin Diokno for the taxes especially on fuel, but Congress plus the person who has the final say – the President.

Duterte has over three more years to put the economy on the path to strong, sustained and inclusive growth. He cannot allow himself to be distracted by political noise, and his governance will be easier if he isn’t constantly slugging it out with his critics.

Three years will be over sooner than expected. President Duterte can still be remembered for more than EJKs – his “only sin,” as he himself put it (a statement not to be taken seriously, according to Malacañang). He must put his popularity to full use.

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