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Analysis

Mercurial poll ratings and the public mood

/ 12:35 AM October 09, 2015

CANBERRA—The focus of the May 2016 elections has shifted back to the economy as the central issue—away from the contending candidates for president and vice president—following the release last week of the World Bank’s report downgrading its forecast of the Philippines’ economic growth this year.

An economic downturn is bad news for everybody, particularly economic managers, and it does not help the contending political parties even though it is good news that their selection of candidates is crystallizing, providing voters a range of options that do not lock them into the extremes of the worst- and best-case scenarios. This means that the 2016 elections are turning out to be truly competitive, where the debate, or what passes for it, has centered on issues concerning policies and platforms rather than on the personal drawbacks of the major candidates for national office from the presidency down to the congressional and local government offices.

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The World Bank defined the importance of the economic issue when it predicted in its report that the economy will grow at a lower rate in 2015 after being dragged down by slow government spending and weak demand for Philippine exports in the first half. For 2015, the World Bank said it had revised its projection for the Philippines to a growth of 5.8 percent, from the previous forecast of 6.5 percent. Next year’s growth is expected at 6.4 percent, tapering to 6.2 percent in 2017.

“This takes into account the relatively weak first-half growth, brought about by slow government spending, negative net exports, and the initial impact of El Niño,” the World Bank said in its report.

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The economy grew by 5.3 percent in the first half of 2015, falling short of the government’s full-year target of 7-8 percent. The World Bank said that despite the shortfall, it still considers the lower projection for the Philippines’ gross domestic product as healthy. However, the Philippines, which is now among Southeast Asia’s five largest economies, is still expected to outperform its neighbors such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. According to Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, growth of above 6 percent will still be “quite doable” given recent efforts to drive up infrastructure spending. From 2011 to 2014, the full-year GDP growth for the Philippines has stayed above 6 percent.

What these figures tell us is that the government’s lackluster economic performance will not be sufficient to drive up the electoral chances of the administration’s candidates in the May 2016 elections. The emphasis of the World Bank on economic performance in the run-up to the elections places a burden on the administration’s candidates to defend this record against opposition criticism. Few politicians are conversant with economics, and the issue is generally not exciting to the electorate, thereby opening the field of public discourse in the election campaign to populist  rhetoric from  charismatic candidates.

With its report, the World Bank is not only projecting the government’s economic performance as the defining issue of the 2016 elections; it is also opening opportunities for candidates with the pertinent expertise to shine against their less economics-literate rivals in political rallies.

What should excite voters in political rallies where economic issues are introduced—what should make the subject relevant to their lives—is information on the jobs created by economic growth. So far, the National Economic and Development Authority has failed to provide information on this aspect of growth. It has only given the public a sorry narrative of target shortfalls and underperformance. The Neda has only succeeded in showing that the administration has fallen short on its job as economic manager; it is more successful in providing ammunition to the administration’s critics. Even the reports of the Bureau of Statistics tell a dismal and demoralizing story of the government’s accomplishments in job creation. The public is tired of hearing stories of failed projects and programs.

Recent opinion surveys on the popularity of candidates for national office reflect the mercurial swings of public satisfaction ratings, which so far have dominated the public discussions rather than the platforms of the contending parties. For example, the public is better informed about the Social Weather Stations’ survey results, first published in BusinessWorld, that the public satisfaction rating of Vice President Jejomar Binay

suffered a nine-point drop in September from his rating last June. What this radical mood swing tells us, it has not been explained.

The survey also revealed mixed results in the public satisfaction ratings of other high officials, including Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senate President Franklin Drilon and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, all of whom are not running for elective office in 2016. What is the relevance of including them in the survey?

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Are we better informed of the mood of the electorate by this survey?

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TAGS: Elections 2016, Opinion surveys, world bank
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