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Crashed

When a stock exchange shed a quarter of its value in one go, it is deemed to have “crashed.” How then should we describe a presidency that lost a quarter of its job approval rating in one brief quarter?

Approval ratings are not merely statistical curiosities as some may be inclined to describe them – especially when their numbers head south. These numbers are the best available measures of a leader’s political capital.

Political capital is important. Assured of robust public support, a leader may boldly go forth and implement reform policies. Without sufficient political capital, a leader will be easily daunted by entrenched interests. He will hedge close to the perceived norm and tend towards populism.

When political capital is lost, it is very hard to recover. When it continues to diminish, it pushes an administration into survival mode. A tunnel vision sets in, with the leader engrossed only with clinging to power. Opportunities are lost. The whole nation suffers.

When Rodrigo Roa Duterte accessed the presidency, he was deemed a “strong” leader. He had a clear electoral mandate, taking the post by a landslide. He had very high approval and trust ratings.

As a “strong” leader, every politician wanted to join his bandwagon. “Super-majorities” were quickly formed in both chambers of Congress. Local executives fell in line. Every power broker wanted to be in his good graces. Foreign governments strove to be on his good side by supporting his priorities with loads of gifts such as bridges and rehab centers.

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Duterte was a “strong” leader not because of what came out of his mouth or his propensity for making rash decisions. He was “strong” because the people invested their trust in him. He was perceived the person who would deliver the reforms our society direly needs, the one who could finally whip our bureaucracy into shape.

Alas, hubris took the better of the new president. He thought he could say anything and the people will stand by him. He bullied those in his way. He paid little respect for the norms of civilized life, the rules that make possible the rule of law.

His supporters unleashed an army of trolls to deal with those who dissent. He went after officials and businessmen alike who caught his ire. Until the other day, a group of staunch pro-Duterte personalities went so far as to declare that dissent was the equivalent of destabilization.

Flush with an electoral landslide, Duterte formed a Cabinet rather haphazardly, confessing to making appointments out of a debt of gratitude. He did not, as Ferdinand E. Marcos did, form a strong team of executives calibrated to achieve a grand plan. Five original Duterte Cabinet members have been rejected by the CA.

By admitting he made appointments to repay political debt, he undermined the image of a leader with a clear plan. Other presidents do make appointments to repay political debt but they never admit to doing that.

Duterte unfiltered might be cute in the short run. Over so many months, however, a leader who routinely spewed cusswords at his imagined foes instead of assiduously distributing hope to a people who have only that to invest becomes unbearable.

SWS

The Social Weather Stations this week reported out its regular survey. The President’s numbers dropped dramatically. Duterte’s net approval rating plunged by 18 percent. This is the fastest erosion of support since the same survey was taken three decades ago. It is not inaccurate to call this a “crash.”

The good news, which the Palace spokesperson chose to spin, is that “the love is still there.” The bad news is that a drop in ratings of this magnitude is likely to be carried by its own momentum.

Presidential legal adviser Sal Panelo tried his own hand at spinning the story. He ascribed the drop to the recent murder of teenagers, apparently by cops in the anti-drug campaign.

But a decline in approval of this magnitude is rarely mono-causal or event-driven. That sudden decline is almost surely due to a large number of considerations, all of them pertaining to how well the administration has delivered on the job.

Duterte won on the expectation that change is coming. If the MRT continues to break down thrice in a day, then change is probably not coming.

Panelo’s clever mono-causal explanation pushes all other areas of underperformance under the rug. If we want to arrest the decline in public support, those other areas of underperformance need to be laid out and examined.

The army of trolls, for their part, tried attacking the messenger. In this case the survey company. But the SWS used the same question for 30 years, making it possible to do comparative analysis.

The bigger concern, especially for those looking to make long-term investments in our economy, is that with less (and probably lessening) public support the Duterte administration might end up accomplishing very little.

The first major test of the administration’s possibly depleted political capital is the final form of the tax reform law. The senators have mangled the reform package so much the new revenue yield will probably will likely shrink the infra program and undermine the whole economic strategy of rapid growth. These senators will probably manage to get reelected in 2019 – but at the price of torpedoing a sound economic strategy.

There are many other horrors to a presidency with depleted political capital, not the least of which is there is no quick fix to the dramatic depletion.


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