PHILIPPINES - What do the recent surveys tell us about the impact of the pork barrel scandal on Philippine President Benigno Aquino III? The first round of reporting and analysis of the Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia surveys, which were conducted roughly at the same time in September, seems to have ranged between dire prognostications of devastated ratings and the first suggestions of a Teflon presidency. The more likely reading, however, is somewhere in the middle: A popular President has sustained a small hit but retains considerable goodwill.
As far as longer-term implications are concerned, however, it's rather too early to tell.
The two main polling organisations track three different measures of popularity. SWS tracks satisfaction with a public official's performance in office; it asks each voting-age respondent "gaano kayo nasisiyahan o hindi nasisiyahan" (how satisfied or unsatisfied are you) with the performance of a particular public official. In the case of President Aquino, the September 20-23 survey found that his satisfaction rating slipped from 76 per cent in June to 68 per cent in September.
Pulse Asia measures both approval and trust ratings. It asks survey respondents whether they approve of a public official's performance or not, using a five-point scale: "talagang aprobado, aprobado, maaaring aprobado at maaaring hindi aprobado, hindi aprobado, o talagang hindi aprobado". The survey firm also asks the respondents how big or small ("gaano kalaki o kaliit") is the trust they place ("ang inyong pagtitiwala") in a particular official. In the case of President Aquino, the September 14-27 survey found that his approval rating rose from 73 per cent in June to 79 per cent in September, while in the same time frame his trust rating remained statistically steady, at 76 per cent.
Those who focus on the SWS data, especially the polling organisation's tradition of showcasing net satisfaction ratings (that is, per cent satisfied minus per cent dissatisfied), have tended to read gloom and doom in the drop in the President's rating. His net rating did fall below 50 per cent for the first time since May 2012; worse, it dropped by 15 points between June (64 per cent) and September (49).
But precisely because net ratings require subtracting the number of dissatisfied from the number of satisfied, an official's actual satisfaction rating can get lost in the shuffle. The President's 68-per cent satisfaction rating in September, however, would be the envy of many other heads of government around the world; to give only the most obvious contrary example, US President Barack Obama's approval ratings have hovered around 50 per cent for the longest time.
Those who focus on the Pulse Asia date, on the other hand, have tended to interpret the latest results as proof of a Teflon or unstainable presidency. Despite relentless coverage of the pork barrel scandal and disclosures about possible misuse of the Disbursement Acceleration Program, Aquino's approval and trust ratings are still sky high. A three-quarters trust rating, midway through a presidential term, is rare indeed. But there are warning signs. His distrust ratings in the National Capital Region and in the Visayas, for instance, have reached double-digit levels.
But the bottom line is: Two months after the pork barrel scandal broke with disclosures about the alleged scam perpetrated by businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, several weeks after Sen. Jinggoy Estrada's privilege speech focused national attention on the now-controversial DAP, the President's popularity-however you measure it-remains robust.
His current standing is no guarantee against future declines, of course; much depends on how he will slay the dragon of political patronage, while continuing to use political resources to stimulate economic growth. But just as it would be unreasonable to interpret his popularity as devastated by the pork barrel scandal (the latest numbers just don't support the notion), it would be folly to accept the Teflon claims and grow complacent.
Aquino's continuing popularity is potent political capital. Would that he use it not only to ensure that those behind the pork barrel scam face justice but also that the conditions that allowed such a scam in the first place are removed, for good.