Surveys in a time of fear
It is possible that we misjudged public anger over the Chinese ramming of the fishing boat Gem-Ver 1 and the deliberate and merciless abandonment of the 22 fishermen on board. But it does not seem likely, for various reasons. Like the CCTV footage of the police procedure that led to the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in August 2017, the photographic evidence of the destroyed fishing vessel, the plainspoken testimony of the fishermen and then the inspiring stories from the Vietnamese rescuers offered compelling documentation and focused national outrage.
But the first Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey taken after Kian was killed, in September 2017, showed that President Duterte’s satisfaction rating took a substantial hit, falling from 78 percent the previous quarter to 67 percent (The fall was sharpest in Class E, which dropped from 80 percent to 61, and in the Visayas, which dropped also by 19 percentage points, from 83 to 64.)
The first SWS survey taken after the Gem-Ver fishermen were left to die at sea, however, showed the President’s satisfaction rating even rising by a percentage point (within the margin of error), to a new record of 80 percent.
What does Mr. Duterte’s continuing popularity mean? How should we understand it, especially in the context of genuine public concern over Chinese bullying in our own exclusive economic zone?
The first task is to marshal the evidence that public anger over the ramming was real and widespread, and that public opinion over Chinese aggression has long been negative. And aside from the evidence we can see with our own eyes, we can look at the same June 2019 SWS survey that confirms the President’s popularity.
Some 93 percent of adult Filipinos said it is important that the Philippines regain control of the “islands” controlled by China in the West Philippine Sea — up 4 percentage points from December 2018. More adult Filipinos said they did not trust China (51 percent, up from 39 percent in March 2019). Most telling, the same June survey conducted a few weeks after the Gem-Ver ramming found that 87 percent of adult Filipinos believe Chinese fishermen who destroy marine resources should be arrested.
The second task is to prove that a climate of fear now colors all surveys. To be completely candid, the information is still incomplete. But we must already note that fear is a reality measured by the same surveys tracking the President’s popularity. In the December 2018 SWS survey, which found 74 percent of voting-age Filipinos satisfied with Mr. Duterte’s performance, 78 percent said they feared (“nangangamba,” in the language of the SWS questionnaire) that they or someone they know will fall victim to an extrajudicial killing (EJK).
This number was higher than the 73 percent recorded in June 2017 and the same as the 78 percent in December 2016.
That is an extraordinary index of anxiety: Three-fourths of adult Filipinos say they worry that they or someone they know might be killed as the next victim of the President’s rampaging war on drugs. When we consider that, even using the President’s most risibly inflated estimates of the number of drug users, not more than 7 percent of the population is on drugs; when we consider further that, according to the December 2018 SWS survey, only 12 percent of adult Filipinos personally know an EJK victim—then the fact that 78 percent of survey respondents say they or someone they know might be the next EJK victim is an indictment of the fundamental unfairness of the President’s personal war.
It is proof that the war on drugs that claims thousands of lives is perceived by the people as essentially unjust, almost random, and a sign that the public labors under cover of fear. The people themselves say so.
This preliminary conclusion suggests that the work for SWS (and Pulse Asia) is clear. It must survey the “nangangamba” question every quarter, instead of only occasionally. It must explain to the public how, or whether, almost complete administration control over every level of government affects survey-taking. And it must consider conducting telephone polls, similar to its Bilang Pilipino project in 2016, the better to protect respondents’ privacy.
Duterte supporters and government officials must learn not simply to stand behind the President’s high ratings, but reconcile the difference between public opinion that supports the President and public opinion that consistently expresses deep anxiety over the President’s signature program.
As for democracy’s activists and supporters: We must read as many data points in the surveys as we can, and at the same time we must learn to trust our instincts and the evidence of our own eyes. Because regular surveys were not available then, the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship succeeded without a constant recourse to gauging public opinion. People did not wait for popular confirmation; rather, they went ahead and did what needed to be done.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]