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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

'My Ratings Are Down!'
Estrada is moving into damage control
By TODD CROWELL and ANTONIO LOPEZ Manila

The president's voice crackled with anxiety. "My ratings are down!" complained Joseph Ejercito Estrada, on meeting his housing secretary Karina Constantino-David. She did not quite see the point, so the president spelled it out: "We're moving too slow on our mass housing." What was needed, said Estrada, was another special adviser Jose Luis Yulo, scion of a prominent landholding family. David also didn't see the point of getting another presidential confidant second-guessing cabinet members. So she resigned onOct. 15.

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Call 'Em Wahidisms Quotations: The world according to Gus Dur
Is He Strong Enough? Wahid's health raises concerns
The Fight for Megawati Behind the scenes of the V.P. election
'East Timor Is a Tough Job' Australia's Downer on relations with Asia

ASEAN: An Indochinese Caucus After a conclave in Vientiane, fears of a split

Malaysia: Now, the Sinatra Principle 'We all did it our own way,' croons Mahathir
The Maps to Power Voting districts lay a confusing quilt
Trial by Dirt Anwar's claims fill the court and the media

The Philippines: 'My Ratings Are Down!' Estrada is moving into damage control

Viewpoint: Beyond Groundhog Day Is this Pyongyang's last chance to end the false starts?

Yes, indeed, President Estrada's popularity has taken a deep plunge. The week that David resigned, Pulse Asia released the results of a survey conducted in September. It showed a 21% drop in Estrada's net approval rating to 44% (achieved by subtracting his 17% disapproval rating from the 61% of the people who still think he's doing a good job). Several other polls confirmed the marked decline in the president's popularity 14 months into his term. (Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's approval ratings have remained consistently high.)

All politicians worry about their popularity, of course, but the ex-movie star's personal grip on the masses has always been the bedrock of his power. He won 40% of the vote in the May 1998 election in a crowded field. Until recently, his approval ratings have exceeded 80%. Such numbers have cloaked him with an aura of invincibility, and, critics charge, are the reason why he sometimes makes impetuous decisions. In public the president took the popularity decline in stride: "I'm not a bit worried," he said.

The single most important factor for Estrada's falling popularity is his support for constitutional amendments allowing complete foreign ownership of some kinds of land. Under the current provisions, foreign ownership is capped at 40%. Estrada wants it lifted entirely for land zoned for industrial and commercial purposes. Such a move, he argues, is essential for attracting more overseas investment, which, in turn, is key to helping lift more people out of poverty.

But the 1987 Constitution, written in the wake of the People Power revolution, is sacrosanct. Aside from the specific issue of foreign ownership, many Filipinos are suspicious about any constitutional changes, especially ones promoted by a leader who is often painted as being close to the old Ferdinand Marcos cronies. The Roman Catholic Church, one of the country's largest landowners, opposes any change, fearing it would open the way to repeal term limits for politicians.

The president says the bishops are spreading rumors that foreigners will gobble up farm land. "Land ownership is an emotional issue among the people, and the priests in the countryside are exploiting this." He concedes that the government has done a poor job of putting forth its case, even though it owns three major downtown TV stations and some 40 radio stations around the country. He vowed to push for the charter change, "even if my popularity drops to zero," he said. "It is go for broke."

The opposition insists that there are more fundamental reasons for Estrada's nosedive in popularity - such as general incompetence. He has made little visible progress on his promise to help the poor. Fueled by higher gasoline prices, the cost of basic commodities has been rising. Estrada also takes a lot of media flak for the disarray and infighting in his administration. And he is criticized for handing out smuggled luxury vehicles, confiscated by the customs bureau, to his cabinet members to use as official cars.

Of course the feisty opposition press, led by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, is happy to pounce on any and every gaffe. The polling slump has "shattered the carefully nurtured myth of his political invincibility," proclaimed the paper's columnist Amando Doronila. Estrada's well-publicized threats of libel suits and his orchestrated advertising boycott against the Inquirer have also worked against him.

The administration is already into damage control. Estrada has dropped his libel suit against former film censor Manuel Morato, who ran against him as a nuisance candidate in 1998, and he patched things up with Pampanga Gov. Manuel Lapid, whom he tried to oust for failing to support him in the election. He commuted the death sentence for the first woman on death row and promised a cabinet reshuffle, weeding out the under-performers. Now he's singing the same tune that a lot of leaders do in similar situations. He has to make the tough decisions, he chants, even if they are unpopular.

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