THE drop in President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s approval rating from 51 percent last August to 41 percent this month—her lowest since she assumed the Presidency in 2001—will not necessarily mean that she won’t run in 2004. That much is evident from the statements from Malacanang as well as Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in the House of Representatives.

Deputy Presidential Spokesman Ricardo Saludo, for example, said that the Pulse Asia survey which reported the drop was taken immediately after Senator Panfilo Lacson’s “Jose Pidal” privilege speeches in which he accused Mrs. Arroyo’s husband Jose Miguel of putting 260 million in campaign contributions in several bank accounts. It was “normal,” said Saludo, for the citizenry to react negatively. But the people will surely recover confidence in Mrs. Arroyo once they realize that Lacson cannot prove his charges.

Presidential liaison officer Jose Ma. Rufino downplayed the survey results (which included the finding that Mrs. Arroyo’s trust rating had fallen from 44 to 36 percent) by saying that the surveys that really count are those taken “before and during election day.”

Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in the House went even farther, and described the decline in both her approval and trust ratings as temporary and insignificant. Mrs. Arroyo’s ratings, chorused these allies, would bounce back in the next surveys as the programs she has put in place begin to bear fruit.

On the other hand, a member of Mrs. Arroyo’s party partial to the candidacy of former Senator Raul Roco suggested that the forthcoming visit of US President George W. Bush could “change everything,” if the Bush visit yields substantial US economic aid and other commitments.

As expected, opposition congressmen crowed over Mrs. Arroyo’s low ratings. Lacson, said Congressman Carlos Padilla, is not to blame for their decline; the corruption in the Arroyo administration is. The Jose Pidal expose of Lacson, said Padilla, merely symbolized corruption in government, and people believed it.

On the other hand, said House Assistant Minority Floor Leader Gilbert Remulla, the Pulse Asia survey was “God’s message to the President that she should no longer entertain the idea of seeking another term.” (Malacanang had earlier announced—for the first time since December 2002 when Mrs. Arroyo announced her non-candidacy in 2004—that whether she indeed won’t run will be up to God.)

The Malacanang and Mrs. Arroyo’s allies’ reactions share one assumption: it is that the results of surveys are valid only for a certain period, and public opinion can change, whereas those of the opposition seems to be that they can’t, at least not for the better.

The former are of course correct, and could be more realistic than hard-headed. Assuming they have not been skewed towards one side or the other either out of malice or incompetence, surveys can provide decision-makers a sense of their constituencies’ sentiments on every possible issue of public interest. They can inform officials about what the public thinks they’re doing wrong, and warn them to take corrective measures.

But survey findings are necessarily bound by time. Change being the condition of existence—whether it be that of nature, individuals, groups, or entire societies—the multitude of factors that shape public opinion in a given period themselves change, even as their interaction can result in shifts in public opinion which can be subtle as well as abrupt.

Ideally, governments can use the results of surveys as a gauge not only of the acceptability of certain policies but also of the public’s preferences, but in most cases only during the particular period when the survey was taken. This suggests a volatility in public opinion that, in the Philippines at least, seems to defy prediction.

The predictive value of survey groups depends on whether they can also identify trends in the citizenry’s thinking, including during an election period. In the few months remaining until May 2004, for example, are there trends in voter preferences that could provide anyone a clue as to who is likely to be President of the Philippines next year?

The answer seems to be “no” at this point. The changes in public acceptance and support for the most viable candidates for President in 2004—and please don’t refer to them with that vile non-English word, “presidentiables”—in the surveys that periodically take place have so far been insignificant. This suggests that no trend in voter preference has emerged so far.

The only individual for whom there seems to be consistently high levels of voter support is in fact a non-candidate, at least for President, and so far. This is former broadcaster, now Senator Noli de Castro. The very figures that show little excitement for either Mrs. Arroyo or any of the personalities that have so far said they will run in 2004 suggest that the voters are not particularly excited by 2004.

Paradoxically, however, this seeming loss of interest in the elections for which passions used to run so high people killed for them can be interpreted as a kind of coming of age, in which the voters have finally realized that whoever they voted for in the past did not make any difference on their lives. If there’s an identifiable trend for 2004, this lack of voter interest based on wide-spread skepticism could be it.

All this means that the Presidential election of 2004 is pretty much undecided, and that its outcome will depend on a number of factors that between now and May next year can influence voter preference when it really matters—on the eve of election day as well as on election day itself.

For Mrs. Arroyo, these factors include whether she can ride out the scandals now hounding her administration. It may be true that Lacson has so far failed to prove his claims against Jose Miguel Arroyo—claims which, even if true, would not constitute criminal acts. An incumbent government, however, is in this country usually regarded as capable of the worst wrongdoing. This skepticism towards those in power is compounded by apparently widespread public disapproval of Mrs. Arroyo’s husband, though not necessarily of Mrs. Arroyo herself. Awareness of this fact explains the advice proffered by some ruling party members that Mrs. Arroyo distance herself from her husband’s financial and other affairs.

Her husband aside, it is also true that Mrs. Arroyo can still be a viable candidate for 2004 if the public perceives by then that she has changed their lives for the better, as she is currently perceived by beneficiaries of her housing program. Her problem will be to rush the results of other government programs enough for their results—assuming they will have results—by 2004. If she succeeds in doing so, however, she shall have performed a miracle, none of her programs having achieved much. What’s worse is that these programs, among them the anti-illegal drugs campaign she launched with much fanfare a few months ago—are perceived as failures.

But Mrs. Arroyo has a distinct advantage over her putative rivals. It is her possession of the American card in the form of US President George W. Bush’s support. In the Philippine experience, US support can include not only statements to that effect, but also such concrete acts as boosts in economic and military aid and (as has happened many times in the past) active US involvement in the campaign.

Add to Mrs. Arroyo’s edge the fact that a reprise of the show of total US support Bush demonstrated during Mrs. Arroyo’s visit to the US this year can make a difference in pro-US Philippines not only in voter attitudes towards Mrs. Arroyo, but also in the support of such election-decisive sectors as the business community and the faction-ridden military.

The US card Mrs. Arroyo has worked hard for. It was to assure US support for a six year term that she restored the stiflingly close US-Philippine ties that in 1991 were severed by the Senate’s non-ratification of a new US bases treaty. It is a card for which Mrs. Arroyo has risked violating the Constitutional ban on foreign troops and military bases. If she plays this card right, she could very well still prevail in 2004, surveys or no surveys.

(Today/, September 27, 2003)

Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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