Government as encumbrance

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

There are least two explanations for Benigno Aquino III’s high approval (73%) and trust ratings (74%). Although these declined by six and two percentage points, or from 79 and 76, respectively, as Pulse Asia pointed out when it released its survey results, the decline is not statistically significant and Mr. Aquino’s ratings are practically the same as they had been before September 2013.
Compared to those of the last three Presidents of the country, those ratings, as Palace spokespersons crowed, may even be described as phenomenal — as indeed they are. The Pulse Asia survey was taken in mid-December 2013, near the end of a turbulent fourth quarter when outrage over the pork barrel scandal was peaking, only to be overshadowed by the October Bohol-Cebu earthquake, and, in November, the devastation wrought by typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) in the Visayas.

The survey found that 50% of Filipinos believe that the economy — the growth of which Mr. Aquino has often claimed as his crowning achievement — had deteriorated, and that their quality of life had similarly declined. As Palace spokespersons have pointed out, the reason for this was the economic devastation of the Visayas, where the most pessimistic responses were recorded by Pulse Asia, that has followed in Yolanda’s wake.

If that gloomy outlook was predictable and driven by the loss of life, resources and unemployment on the ground, what is unusual is that in a country where the government and whoever happens to be President usually end up taking flak for everyone’s misfortunes, and despite middle class perceptions that the administration’s response to Yolanda was less than competent and even negligent, the pessimism evident in that perception — and in that of an earlier Social Weather Stations survey in which nine million families rated themselves as “food poor” — left Mr. Aquino unscathed.

One of the reasons for this is that Mr. Aquino has the advantage and benefit of being compared with a predecessor whose term of office was not only marked by numerous scandals; her legitimacy itself also remained in question until she very reluctantly stepped down in 2010.

For all her reliance on public relations flackery, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wasn’t a media favorite either, not only because she tended to be perfunctory when dealing with journalists, she was also so transparently focused on staying in power, and therefore too unpopular, for the media to pull their punches in their commentaries and analyses.

The media, after all, do reflect public sentiments despite the limitations of their political and economic interests, if for no other reason than the ratings and circulations on which advertising revenues depend. Every journalist and broadcaster is also him/herself a citizen who more often than not shares the sentiments of the rest of the population.

Despite his frequent criticisms of the media, and his mistaken belief that the media are biased against his administration, Mr. Aquino is, in contrast, the nearest thing to a media darling this country has had since his mother Corazon Aquino. Not only are most journalists by instinct and reason aware of his popularity; as professionals they also share with their middle-class brethren the same esteem for Mr. Aquino’s parents that the latter earned during and after the martial law period.

But if the media are reflective of the attitude of the populace, from where does the latter’s attitude towards Mr. Aquino proceed? Surely his high approval and trust ratings are not driven by middle-class sentiments alone, but decided as well by even the less fortunate in Philippine class society.

The surveys, after all, do not limit themselves to consulting only Mr. Aquino’s natural constituencies (the middle class, the business community, the bureaucracy, among others) but often cut across not only age, education and gender, but also economic status. If the survey population is to truly represent Philippine society, the primary determinant of the results would in fact be its poorer, more numerous sectors.

And yet it is these sectors whose members rightly complain about the poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity to which they have been condemned by the political and social order — who have not benefited at all from the economic growth the Aquino administration claims as its greatest achievement. It is these very sectors that contribute most to the highest trust and approval ratings of any President since Marcos that Mr. Aquino currently still enjoys.

In accounting for this refusal to link their continuing poverty, hunger, etc. to the failures of the Aquino administration, of even greater moment than the esteem his parents’ memory still enjoys among the populace is the latter’s low expectations of governance — the mass perception that an administration during which not much may have happened in terms of changing their lives is better than one in which, while much may have happened, has only made their lives even worse: a variation of the “lesser evil” syndrome.

What should disturb the guardians of the system is that this suggests a disaffection with government itself, if not with Mr. Aquino. It is the sense that government not only costs; it is also a burden, an encumbrance and a deadweight irrelevant to people’s lives, and for whose non-interference the citizenry should be thankful, because its intervention only makes things worse. Despite his belief that his administration has made a difference in people’s lives, what best distinguishes Mr. Aquino’s administration is not what it has done but what it hasn’t: compared to past administrations, it hasn’t killed as many, for example; been involved in as many scandals; or has been as corrupt.

It’s a lesson learned from the bitter experience of decades, during which, thanks to government and the political dynasties, the cost of public sector corruption has grown from tens of millions to billions, and demands for change and democratization have always led to the brutal suppression of citizen rights whether before, during and after the martial law period — until the present, when the poor have become legion and are rushing for the exits. Mr. Aquino and company may be in a celebratory mood over his persistently high approval and trust ratings. Those same ratings are far from reason enough to break out the champagne.

Comments, blogs and other columns:, and

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
January 23, 2014

Share This Post