The results of the September 2020 Ulat ng Bayan (literally, the People’s Report) survey of Pulse Asia released on Oct. 8 surprised — and, said one of their fellow political observers, even “appalled” — some of the polling firm’s own executives. Indeed, in response to the skepticism of those citizens aware of, and deeply concerned over the gross incompetence and corruption rampant in government, at least two of the latter went out of their way to try to explain what could have led to the unbelievably high approval and trust ratings of President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration.
Pulse Asia reported that 84% of Filipinos said they approve of the way the regime is addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 3% of those surveyed supposedly disagree with the statement that Mr. Duterte has succeeded in preventing the spread of the disease. With 5% uncertain, a huge 92% purportedly agree that he has done well in controlling the contagion, although, with an average of 3,000-plus new cases daily, and with a total of over 300,000 cases as of last week (Oct. 5-11), the Philippines is now 18th in the world among those countries with the highest number of coronavirus cases.
The relatively poor sector of the population, socio-economic classes D and E, seemingly gave him approval ratings of 93% and 95%, respectively. Even classes ABC, which are presumed to be better informed, apparently gave him 78%. Mr. Duterte’s performance rating also rose by four percentage points to 91% from its previous 87%, said Pulse Asia.
The results were surprising enough for some groups and individuals to question the survey methodology and to even imply that they were deliberately skewed. In protest, the head of Pulse Asia said the firm has been using the same methodology for 20 years and that as a group mostly made up of academics it is not in the business of lying on behalf of any interest.
Pulse Asia’s record and reputation do speak for themselves. It has accurately polled voter preferences during past elections, for example, and in those 20 years has demonstrated that the opinions of the population it solicits during its surveys are truly reflective of the views of the entire Filipino people. How representative is the survey population is crucial in canvassing public opinion, and both Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations have apparently found and habitually access such a body of men and women.
As astounding as they are, the September 2020 Pulse Asia findings are not the only survey results that have surprised academics, independent journalists, and even foreign observers. Even before the pandemic, some of the latter, among them political scientists, human rights defenders and journalists from other countries, had raised in public forums questions on the reasons for the apparent popularity of Mr. Duterte despite his profanities, threats, misogynist remarks, invitations to violence, and authoritarian mode of governance.
Pulse Asia competitor Social Weather Stations has also released public opinion poll findings on Mr. Duterte and his administration that seem to defy explanation. His so-called “war on drugs,” despite its huge toll on the lives and fortunes of the poor — it has left in its bloody wake wives widowed and children orphaned by the killings — has consistently received high approval ratings in both Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations polls even from classes D and E. One survey, however, at the same time found that most of the respondents favored arresting and charging suspected drug pushers and users in court rather than summarily executing them as the regime has been doing.
The conflict between the two findings in the same opinion poll was enough to suggest to some journalists and academics that most Filipinos actually disapprove of the way the Duterte regime’s brutal anti-illegal drug campaign is being waged. When directly asked if they approve of it or not, they were moved to say “yes,” but when asked if they agreed with the killings that primarily characterize what they said they approved of, said “no.”
Something similarly in conflict with the Pulse Asia findings was among the results of another recent opinion poll. Most Filipinos, some 85%, Social Weather Stations found in a September survey taken almost at the same time as Pulse Asia’s, still fear catching COVID-19 despite the six-month long (and counting) lockdown the country has been subjected to. That sentiment contradicts the supposedly overwhelming support for the Duterte administration’s handling of the pandemic that Pulse Asia found. If in the opinion of 84% of Filipinos the regime is doing so well in reducing the contagion, why would 85% of the population still fear catching it?
What is evident in both cases is that the respondents said “yes” when directly asked if they approve of what the Duterte regime is doing about the COVID-19 crisis, but contradicted themselves when answering a question that did not imply any criticism of the government.
If that suggests anything, it is that there are widespread fears among the people that criticism of the present regime can be dangerous, as it has indeed demonstrated in a number of instances, among them in the harassment, intimidation, and even the imprisonment and killing of critics, dissenters, human rights defenders and independent journalists. The use of its coercive powers — the police, the military, the courts — to compel obedience and conformity is inherent in the very nature of the State. But uniquely among Philippine administrations since that of Ferdinand Marcos’, and far more than that of Fidel Ramos’, Joseph Estrada’s, Benigno Aquino III’s, and even Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s, Mr. Duterte’s regime has used fear and terror most to assure its dominance not only over every institution of government but also over the rest of the population.
The only conclusion that can be drawn from the above contradictions in survey results is that while the methodology of polling groups like Pulse Asia has remained the same over the last two decades as its president has admitted, it is the context in which it is still being used that has changed.
The fear factor has to be integrated into that methodology, perhaps by pollsters’ making sure that in the effort to get a sense of public sentiment on any issue involving governance, the questions they ask are phrased in such a way that they do not suggest any direct criticism of the present order. Perhaps then there will be less skepticism and a better sense of what the public is really thinking. Assuring respondents that their names and other information about them will be kept confidential could also help.
Although false, inadequate, or no information at all does have a bearing on the results of public opinion polls, it won’t do to just dismiss them as merely indicative of the distressing ignorance that afflicts vast segments of the population that is at least partly due to the regime’s keyboard army of trolls. The transformation of the country’s political context from one that prior to 2016 was relatively threat-free to the climate of fear that now defines it is most certainly a factor as well in the way the populace responds to surveys and public opinion polls. In much the same way, in warlord-dominated areas the results of elections are decided by fear and coercion rather than by informed democratic choice — and are as ghastly as the Duterte regime’s allegedly universal approval and trust ratings.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).