Arroyo Depending on the 39% of Undecided Voters to Remain Passive

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Arroyo Depending on the 39% of Undecided Voters to Remain Passive

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Since for all intents and purposes, the campaign for the 2007 elections has begun, it’s useful to look at where public opinion stands at present. While the definitive guide to public opinion are the elections themselves, ahead of them, our best guide remains the surveys periodically conducted by leading firms.

Yesterday, the third quarter survey by Pulse Asia, one of the two leading firms, was released. It was conducted from Oct. 21 to Nov. 8. Pulse Asia polled 1,200 respondents for the survey, with a ±3 percent error margin and a 95 percent confidence level. So this means that every figure in the survey represents a range (add three points, and subtract three points, from each figure quoted to arrive at the range).

Some of its findings are as follows.

In terms of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s performance, 48 percent of the respondents were critical of it. According to Pulse Asia, this is a figure not significantly different from her overall performance rating in July.

The survey also showed that between 40 to 53 percent of Filipinos disapprove of the administration’s performance on six national issues: Criminality, political killings, workers’ pay, poverty, graft and corruption, and inflation.

On the issue of “national economic recovery”, in other words, the economy, which is the foundation of the administration’s claims to achievement, the survey showed 25 percent approved, 39 percent disapproved and 36 percent remain undecided. On the question of restoring public trust in government and government officials, only 19 percent approved, 37 percent disapproved and 43 percent were undecided.

In terms of regional or geographic support, Metro Manila residents (54 percent), balance of Luzon (53 percent), Mindanao (52 percent) and Class E (52 percent) gave President Arroyo the highest distrust ratings. Mrs. Arroyo’s trust rating among Class E (the poorest portion of society) respondents dropped 10 percentage points while her distrust rating increased by 11 percentage points. Visayans (40 percent) remain the most appreciative of Mrs. Arroyo’s work while those in Metro Manila (19 percent) were least inclined to approve of it.

With regards to other officials, Senate President Manuel Villar, garnered an approval rating of 60 percent, followed by the vice president, Noli de Castro with 54 percent. The chief justice gained in his approval ratings: It rose by nine percentage points while that of the Supreme Court went up from 36 to 46 percent (a big increase by any measure). However, indecision ratings are quite high: For Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, those undecided are pegged at 40 percent while the other top national government officials record nearly the same indecision ratings: 25 percent to 33 percent. What’s peculiar is that none of the press reports mention the Speaker of the House.

What do these figures tell us?

Last week, in my Philippine Daily Inquirer column, I argued that we should bear certain things in mind. First, both President Arroyo and her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, claim about 40 percent of the population as their base of support. This figure is based on the percentage of the population both claim voted for them in the presidential elections of 1998 and 2004, respectively. So one could argue that at the peak of their popularity, 4 out of 10 Filipinos are for either one, with 6 out of 10 Filipinos opposed to either one at the same time.

The problem is, politically speaking, that Estrada’s camp confuses (in broad strokes) the 60 percent that opposed the president with support for the opposition, which isn’t true. At best, both sides, administration and Estrada-led opposition, are evenly matched. I also argued that the president’s camp has been far more clever in realizing this, and in courting the 20 percent that still remains outside both camps if you assume each has 40 percent support. That 20 percent (100, the total voting population, minus 80, the combined bases of both sides at their strongest) are the undecided, or the swing votes, whether in surveys or actual elections.

The surveys, both the latest and previous ones, indicate, though, that in terms of her real, hardcore base of support, the president has to distinguish between all-out, and “soft support”. The hardcore believers in the president I’ve been pegging, for some time, at a quarter of the population. This means, of her 40 percent, at least 15 percent supports her not out of conviction, but rather, convenience. My hunch is that President Arroyo’s hardcore support plus opportunistic supporters, are more cohesive than the opposition’s supporters: Time and events have taken their toll on Estrada, who still maintains a larger core of loyal supporters than Arroyo, but his camp has to contend with a more hard-headed and independent-minded set of factions in the opposition’s ranks.

Say Estrada maintains 30 percent; and other oppositionists number 10 percent; I believe it is easier for Mrs. Arroyo to mobilize not only her 40 percent total, but behave as if it also speaks for the (at least) 20 percent undecided population, than it is for Estrada or any other opposition group, to say it speaks for both the opposition and the undecided.

Now these hunches of mine seem to be validated by the latest survey, which provides us with slightly less fuzzy numbers.

The president’s performance has 48 percent of respondents critical, and on the basis of six issues, anywhere from 40-53 percent disapproving of her conduct. This is the opposition-minded population, which doesn’t mean 52 percent actively support Mrs. Arroyo; the figures on “economic recovery,” reveal 25 percent think she’s doing great (her hardcore supporters), 39 percent think she’s doing badly (the broad opposition in real terms), and a whopping 39 percent unsure. That figure — the 39 percent unsure — are what the coming elections are about.

For now, and since the political crisis began in 2005, the president’s obsession has been to keep the undecided from throwing their support behind the opposition. It matters less if they throw their support for the president. Passivity in a political crisis can be as useful for a government than active support or hostility. Unless something is done by those who desire some sort of political change, the political odds remain firmly stacked in Mrs. Arroyo’s favor.

However, the other figures on other national leaders also suggest public support for the Senate, and skepticism over efforts to amend the constitution, facts that remain serious checks on Mrs. Arroyo’s ambitions.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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