Philippines: The Honeymoon's Over For President Estrada


Professor Mark Turner

What goes up must come down' is not only a commentary on the law of gravity but also an accurate observation about presidential popularity polls in the Philippines. After a 'honeymoon' period of one to two years popularity goes into decline. President Estrada has now followed the pattern established by his predecessors, Presidents Aquino and Ramos. Thus, the Social Weather Station (SWS) has just reported Estrada's popularity rating dropping from 78 per cent in June to 56 per cent in October. A different survey for Metro Manila found the public's satisfaction rating down a massive 44 per cent.

President Estrada's immediate reaction was to state that he was 'unfazed' by such surveys and that he was determined to continue with his policy agenda. However, he later added that 'it doesn't mean that I am unresponsive' and even lauded the surveys as valuable 'feedback on the public perception of my performance'. The President then provided an analysis of why his popularity had fallen - 'cronyism, the Marcos wealth, Charter change, corruption and insurgency' - all of which are familiar fare in Philippine politics.

Cronyism in the Philippines was not invented by Ferdinand Marcos but has a much longer history. The accusations against Estrada are that he has favoured new cronies with positions and opportunities, and has also allowed politically adept former cronies to retain their favoured status. Thus, President Estrada has been increasingly portrayed as being out of the old mould and not, as he claimed, the crusading populist dedicated to fighting poverty.

Recovery of the Marcos wealth has been a concern (or 'albatross' as Estrada put it) for all post-Marcos presidents. Estrada's tactics have differed from his predecessors in that he has indicated a preference for a 'compromise deal' to acquire a large part of the ill-gotten gains. However, there are many Filipinos who do not approve of such an approach, a fact reflected in the popularity polls. Appreciation of this may account for Estrada's recent about-face on the issue. He now says 'There is no, and there will not be, any out-of-court settlement with the Marcos family'.

Charter change refers to the President's attempts to make modifications to the Constitution to encourage rapid economic growth. His objective is to dismantle protectionist provisions which restrict foreign investment and foreign ownership of land and media. Like his predecessor, Fidel Ramos, Estrada is finding it tough going to sell his Charter change ideas. There is longstanding support for a Filipino First Policy in the economy while there is widespread suspicion that the economic focus of his proposals masks a political agenda which includes extending his term in office, curbing press freedom and even imposing martial law. Manila's leading cleric, Cardinal Sin, and former President Corazon Aquino, lead the forces against constitutional change. However, many local business groups appear to support Estrada's proposals and the Senate has indicated its backing. Opposition is, however, likely in the House of Representatives where the Speaker, Manuel Villar, has a very poor record of overseeing legislation for economic reform.

Corruption has a history extending back into colonial times and has become a deeply embedded phenomenon in the Philippines although recent surveys by international bodies, such as Transparency International, indicate that the situation might be improving. Some executives would disagree. In a survey for the Far Eastern Economic Review, 42 per cent of the executives polled said that corruption had actually increased since the Asian financial crisis began. The World Bank has also weighed into the debate with a report alleging 20 per cent of the Philippine budget is being lost to corruption. The President has made a typically dramatic response warning corrupt officials 'Watch out, your days are numbered no matter who you are'. He has also made an equally predictable organisational response by setting up a new body, the Presidential Committee for Efficient Governance.

The Philippines' two insurgencies continue unresolved. The Communist New People's Army (NPA) is still weak but nonetheless active while the heavily armed Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is busy rattling automatic weapons and building capacity in Mindanao. Progress towards negotiated peace continues to be slow.

President Estrada is certainly taking action on all of the issues which he sees as contributing to his popularity decline and is confident that his fortunes will change as his policies take hold, the Philippines prospers and the incidence of poverty is reduced. He likens the situation to the movies where 'with proper direction the next scene will change'. The main character may have taken a beating but he recovers. The President assures us that the recovery 'will be dramatic'.

WATCHPOINT: Will the President succeed in amending the constitution? Will the President's popularity rating improve? How far will the President resolve the issues which have led to his popularity decline? How effective will the new anti-corruption drive be?


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