Reality check

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

It takes more than populism for a leader to fulfill his promises to the people, and far more to combat elitism and make the government function more. Without definitive and well-considered policies, a leader’s populist pronouncements, witticisms, and tough talk are mere propaganda tactics of one attempting to consolidate power.

The third-quarter surveys from Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations revealed that President Duterte still enjoys the support of a majority of Filipinos. Nevertheless, the surveys provide a neutral-to-negative snapshot of how the public perceives the President. After 16 months, the presidency has suffered its first setback due to the growing gap between promise and practice. Should this gap increase and expand, a legitimacy crisis could set in, unleashing disastrous power plays that would affect the economy.

The SWS survey for the quarter found that 67 percent were satisfied with the President’s performance, a 16-point change from 83 percent the previous quarter. This drop may reflect changing views in the most populous strata (Classes E and D), whose views outweigh the nearly static result from Class ABC. With little movement in his rating in Mindanao, the President’s ratings lost out in the Visayas the most, followed by Balance of Luzon, and Metro Manila. Nevertheless, 73 percent of Filipinos said they trusted the President, gaining him a “very good” net trust rating.

On the other hand, 80 percent told Pulse Asia they approve of the President’s performance and 80 percent said they trust him. These are a 2-point difference from his previous approval rating of 82 percent and a 1-point difference from his previous trust rating of 81 percent. With hardly any movement in his Pulse Asia numbers, the situation becomes less dire and more of a reality check for President Duterte.

Still, adjustments have to be made. The economic managers need to clear up how inclusive growth will be achieved and to promote more economic freedom. If job opportunities would be available and growth is employment-driven, the Filipino population would surely benefit. This could be done by boosting domestic and foreign direct investments, which would be facilitated by relaxing some of the economic provisions in the Constitution. We should strengthen our tax effort and improve tax administration. Recent events show that much more revenues can be generated for the government if illicit trade is properly addressed. Increasing rates and expanding coverage are but secondary steps in generating public funds.

It also takes more than words to make the government more functional and responsive. The federal inclination needs to be concretized and, more importantly, packaged so as not to merely change the Constitution for its own sake but as a strategy to implement far-reaching political reforms.

In the controversial war on drugs, the delegation of the war to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and removing the
police from the program make for good move. But, again, procedures have to be clear and implemented in a transparent and constitutional way. In this way, both the goal and method become acceptable to the public. This has been the problem with the war on drugs. No one wants a narco-state, but no one also wants killing with impunity.

Philippine foreign policy, by now, should have been well-crafted and -stated as well. An independent foreign policy does not literally mean driving away ambassadors, dignitaries, or allies who are critical of how the government conducts its own functions. It should be a stance on international relations that is based on mutual respect and benefit.

In essence, what the presidency needs is adjustment in terms of focus, policy and program. More specifically, policy is the defining link between populist posturing and the delivery of public services. Populism, left alone, could degenerate into autocratic rule anchored on totalitarian intervention. Without policy, the same social problems that a populist leader has promised the people to solve will be more entrenched and leave the economy in a worse state.

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