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The mathematics of politics

June 08, 2019 - Saturday 4:06 AM by E.R. Nartatez

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“How can it be that mathematics, a product of human thought independent of experience, is so admirably adapted to the objects of reality?” - Albert Einstein

Not a few of his critics (the usual suspects and outgoing Senator Trillanes outstandingly) had been confidently predicting, in both local and foreign media, the President’s demise in terms of approval and popularity. We were told that the President and his administration had nowhere else to go but down. 

Trillanes’ prophecy was premised on a dramatic narrative; according to him, the President was “unravelling," and that he was slowly but surely being exposed as an incompetent fraud, unworthy of the presidency (Trillanes can hardly say ‘President Duterte’). He confidently declared that more people will begin to see things the way he saw things, with crystal clarity of course, and will ‘see the light’ that he’s been preaching and will turn their backs against the President.

But if numbers indeed reflect objective reality, as Einstein suggested, this proves quite explicitly that the outgoing senator missed his target by a very wide margin.

The President also appears to defy the almost law-like trend among sitting presidents, i.e., with the political honeymoon over and the murmur of frustrations and disillusionments clawing their way amongst the masses, the sitting president’s popularity and approval rating suffers a downturn midway through the presidential term. But this present administration apparently has defied that trend in very impressive fashion. 

How is this to be explained? An opinion piece in the BusinessWorld online magazine by economist Andrew J. Masigan titled ‘Numbers Don’t Lie’ attempts an explanation.

The latest Social Weather Station survey puts the support rate for the President as “excellent," an improvement from its previous “very good” status. “Of the sample group, 81 percent said they were satisfied, 10 percent were undecided, while 9 percent said they were dissatisfied. This yielded a +72 net approval rating, 6 points higher than the +66 it achieved in the previous quarter.” 

And what’s more impressive is the fact that the increase of the President’s approval rating is not isolated to a few expected areas “but across all provinces." The President’s satisfaction ratings “increased by 11 points in the Visayas, by 6 points in Mindanao and by 3 points in Luzon. Surprisingly, the usually critical Metro Manila also registered an increase of 5 points.” 

I guess this survey explains a lot why the opposition’s ‘attack the President’ strategy didn’t work in the recently concluded midterm election.

What’s more surprising is that the survey could not have been conducted at a more unfavorable time for the administration with all the controversies it was facing, e.g., the “revelations” of Bikoy and the influx of Chinese workers competing with local workers. And this is alongside the constant media reports on the so-called EJK and the “murderous” drug war of the administration.

So, for the President to not just sustain his popularity but even register an increase in his approval rating to “excellent” is no mean feat! This is the explicandum that the author attempts to articulate. His assessment is that “at the heart of the President’s ratings are two factors — first, a confluence of many minor accomplishments, which, when taken together, gives the impression that this government has its act together. The second is the traction gained by government’s infrastructure program.”

Let me briefly put in my two cents on some details.

As I see it, the President’s popularity is largely due to the perception that he demonstrates a strong political will in confronting problems and issues facing the country (which the people see as something refreshingly different from the ‘politics as usual’ approach in previous administrations, but others—those who conflate and can’t (won’t?) distinguish between his tough, aggressive old school male bravado persona and his politics—see it as evidence that Duterte is a dictator). 

First, the “minor accomplishments," i.e., fast and practical solutions to pestering problems, e.g.,

  •  Getting rid of the embarrassing tanim-bala modus in NAIA; reappointment of Sumitomo as maintenance contractor to handle MRT 3; releasing Philippine-made 1.7 million license plates, and also 10.3 million drivers licenses (3 years in waiting); passports and driver’s license validity extensions, et al. Also, the immediate solutions taken to curb the recent bout with inflation, rice tariffication to counter the rice cartel, dropping unemployment rate to 5.2% (lowest since 2009).

  • • “Populist policies” such as universal healthcare program, free public education up to college level, and the extension of maternity leaves. (However, let me hasten to add a caveat here that such government-run social programs require huge and sustained amount of funding that may turn and bite back if not properly managed.)

    • * Here’s a short but insightful talk on ‘Capitalism vs. Socialism’

Masigan is correct to say that “All these have made people feel that government is working and that their lives are improving,” and perhaps explains why they believe what they feel more on the ground and not buy too much into all the negativity against the President in big media.

Second, Masigan argues that the “real boost” to the President’s high ratings is the ambitious ‘Build(3x)’ infrastructure program. This is the “more notable reason for President Duterte’s popularity.” Masigan details the great works being done by DPWH under Sec Villar and DoTR with Sec. Tugade—the roads and railway systems, airports and ports all over the country—nothing short of amazing!

I would agree that the infrastructure program of this administration is truly something to be marveled at. However, I digress with Masigan in giving this greater credit for the President’s “excellent” rating. It’s my contention that the majority of the people probably have been impacted more by the previous “minor” reasons given, reasons that demonstrate the political will of the administration to act firmly and swiftly, and not get entangled with overly long and drawn out politics as usual approach that characterized previous administrations. I’m sure the infrastructure vision also is a factor, but I believe the full impact of this would come later when these projects—the “promise of an infrastructure renaissance”—will be running in full speed, and thus directly benefiting the majority of the people. At the moment, the ‘Build(3x)’ program is still on its initial stage.

However, Masigan’s conclusion is spot on, “There may be a lot of political noise going around — be it in the form of the “bikoy” exposè, federalism, the return of the Marcoses in power, the absolution of convicted plunderers, the war on drugs and many more. One thing we can’t deny, however, is that perennial problems are being solved, badly needed infrastructure are being built and the economy is soaring. The numbers prove it and the numbers don’t lie.”

Love him or hate him (and there are many “horrific” things you could hate about the guy; but let’s be honest, some of these “horrors” are more imagined than real), but as President, I think he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing to serve the country in this moment of our history as a nation. I could be wrong, sure. There are those who disagree. That’s ok. We call that democracy.