The recent drop in presidential ratings taken by Pulse Asia over the period December 2016 to March 2017 might reasonably be taken as a wake-up call for the administration. But it’s important to make sure that what we’re hearing is the right alarm clock.
On the upside, Duterte’s ratings actually registered a substantial increase among the upper “ABC” classes. He improved by +12 percent on the “trust” issue, and by an even higher +17 percent on “performance.” The double-digit improvement is even more notable considering that these are the people from whom come the majority of his high-handed, know-it-all critics.
What accounted for this? Consider another, earlier survey that found that 82 percent of Metro Manila residents feel safer today in the midst of the anti-drug war. This may have been an important reason for the improvement in sentiment. Deeper and more focused research is called for.
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On the downside, however, Duterte’s ratings among the “D” crowd dropped by -6 percent on performance and -7 percent on trust. The drops were even larger among the “E” crowd, by -8 percent and -11 percent, respectively.
The larger drops for the poorer “E” group may indicate where the reasons actually lie: in simple economics. Prices and jobs are the two most important issues for the poor, and the poorer one is, the bigger these issues become. Consider what also happened during the survey period:
On prices: Consumer prices rose 3.4 percent year-on-year in March. This is the highest that inflation has been in over two years. A lot of it was due to a maintenance shutdown of the Malampaya gasfield, pushing up electricity prices. But it was serious enough to prompt National Economic and Development Authority head Ernie Pernia to warn about rising commodity prices.
On jobs: Local unemployment rose to 6.6 percent the first quarter of this year, from 4.7 percent the last quarter of 2016. According to online site tradingeconomics.com, this is the highest jobless rate in two years. Over the same period, the labor force participation rate also dropped from 63.6 percent to 60.7 percent.
What the wake-up call may be all about, then, is going back to basics. Bread-and-butter issues are what matter most to those who are poor. And because our country still has so many who are poor, those issues are also what should command the highest priority of attention by government.
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The President has the right to continue to focus his governance on the problems he believes are what matter most to the country: drugs, criminality, corruption. Most of our people very clearly agree with him on this, and he can count on them to back him up no matter what the destabilizers and the foreign nitpickers say about it.
But he can also afford to be more expansive in the messages he communicates to the rest of us. The recent dip in his ratings may indicate the stirrings of unease over the direction the economy is taking. Economic issues and reform initiatives should thus take up more space in his public statements, to reassure the public and to improve the chances of success for those reforms.
The President often refers to, say, the tax reform package now pending in Congress as “Sonny Dominguez’s tax reforms.” This is his self-effacing way of deferring to those whom he believes are more knowledgeable about the issue at hand. It is consistent with his well-known humility, but perhaps not the best approach on issues that deserve his full-throated support.
Tax reform is critical because it is the only way we can raise enough money to spend for the infrastructure we need in order to support the kind of economic growth that will permanently reduce poverty. Likewise, changing the Constitution to open up the economy to more foreign investors is critical to bringing in the outside capital we need to permanently create lots of new jobs.
These initiatives deserve to be known as Duterte’s tax reforms, Duterte’s economic liberalization, Duterte’s commitment to be both pro-poor AND pro-growth. It’s the best way to shore up what is otherwise the heartfelt support he enjoys among the masses.
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Luckily for us, the investment story about the Philippines continues to be positive.
According to Philippine Economic Zone Authority, the number of investment pledges totaled P51 billion in the first quarter of 2017, up by a whopping 50 percent year-on-year. This was driven by more Filipino developers planning to set up more economic zones, as well as increases in locator numbers especially for IT and manufacturing.
Peza Director General Charito Plaza plans to triple or even quadruple investment pledges this year, following a 26-percent decline last year. This will include half a billion dollars in pledges from the Middle East, where she held a roadshow last February, as well as four billion dollars from American oil company OS Petro.
This is all great news. These are budding success stories that ought to be “owned” by the President, and rightfully so.
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