Philippines: Does President Estrada Deserve His Good Marks?


Professor Mark Turner

It is one year since Joseph Estrada won a landslide victory in the presidential election. Has the faith of the masses been justified? According to Social Weather Station surveys Filipinos are satisfied with his performance. In March 1999, 32 percent were 'very satisfied' and 45 percent were 'somewhat satisfied'. The net satisfaction rate (the difference between the percent satisfied and the percent dissatisfied) was a highly creditable 67 percent. Added to that, President Estrada, with 19 percent of the male votes, emerged as the 'most admired man' among Philippine men. Women were less enthusiastic and placed the President third behind 'my husband' and 'my father'.

Trying to determine the reasons behind the results of the popularity polls is a difficult task. It appears to have more to do with image and style than with concrete achievements. President Estrada has certainly performed far better than his critics hoped or imagined but there are both pluses and minuses. On the economy the familiar generalisation is that the Philippines has weathered the crisis better than its ASEAN neighbours.

However, the country did start from a lower base. Also, economic troubles are far from over. It is unclear as to whether there has been any significant progress on poverty alleviation, the leading policy priority of the President. The good news is that agricultural production is bouncing back, production up 2.7 percent in the first quarter of 1999. But manufacturing continues to slide, albeit at a slower rate. There was a 4.5 per cent decrease in manufacturing output and 5.8 percent loss in value in the first quarter of 1999. The alarming budget deficit figures registered in March have improved dramatically in April but the IMF still expresses concern over weaknesses in revenue collection. Inflation continues to decline, down to 8 percent in the year to April from 8.7 percent a month earlier. However, the ADB has warned against government complacency over the economy while a business survey revealed that Philippine firms were more pessimistic about paying back their loans and making better use of their productive capacity than in other crisis-stricken Asian countries.

On the law and order front there has been a dramatic decline in kidnappings so much so that the Chinese-Filipino Business Club gave the President an 'excellent' grade on his record in this area. He also scored 'excellent' in the other nine areas identified by the Club. However, a public dispute between the Director of the Philippine National Police, Roberto Lastimoso, and the leader of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force, Panfilo Lacson, has not enhanced the battered reputation of the country's police. Lacson has accused Lastimoso of involvement with drug syndicates. This comes on top of allegations of corruption against a presidential 'relative' for influence-peddling and bribery in the awarding of printing contracts for school texts. The President was himself implicated as an 'unwitting godfather' in a 'rigged contract' for a hydro-electric plant. He sued the newspaper successfully and secured a front-page apology from its owners, the mega-wealthy Gokongwei family. John Gokongwei then requested President Estrada to be godfather, this time at his youngest daughter's wedding. The President agreed and then referred to John Gokongwei as his 'best friend'.

The two insurgencies continue to drift. There are no firm plans to sit down for discussions with either the communist National Democratic Front, the umbrella under which the Communist Party of the Philippines and its New People's Army operates, or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is still demanding a separate Muslim state in the south. The President has indicated his willingness to enter negotiations, but also refuses to have the agenda set by the insurgent groups, thus producing a stalemate.

The performance record does not really answer the question of how President Estrada manages to remain so popular. But you might get a clue by looking at the approval ratings of his predecessors at the same point in their presidencies. You will find that they show remarkably similar figures to President Estrada's 67 percent net approval rating. President Aquino registered 68 percent and President Ramos 66 per cent. Their figures declined as their time in office progressed.

WATCHPOINT: Can President Estrada break the pattern of earlier presidents by maintaining his popularity?


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