Filipinos more concerned about inflation, jobs as Marcos Jnr focuses more on South China Sea

Only 14 per cent of respondents said Congress should focus on China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea.

Other issues such as rising criminality and more illegal drug users – both of which were prevalent during the previous administration under strongman Rodrigo Duterte – were at 22 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively.

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The survey was conducted between November and December last year.

While Marcos Jnr remains popular among the Filipino majority, recent surveys have shown his clout may be in decline – his trust and approval ratings saw a double-digit drop earlier this year from 68 per cent in December to 55 per cent in March, according to a poll by Pulse Asia.

Cleve Arguelles, a political scientist and head of WR Numero, told This Week in Asia that while the state of the economy was a constant concern for Filipinos, the firm’s survey was reflective of public expectations of Marcos Jnr and his administration, whose electoral platform in 2022 focused on economic recovery.

For instance, Marcos Jnr had repeatedly vowed to lower the price of rice to 20 Philippine pesos (US$0.35) a kilogram. In August, agriculture officials said Marcos was unlikely to meet his campaign promise in the next two years, citing a 15-year-high in global rice prices.

The Philippines is the world’s top rice importer with the crop being a staple of the Filipino diet.

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“For the average Filipino, there’s an overriding concern about the state of the economy and how that affects them on a day-to-day basis,” Arguelles said.

He added that it was crucial to contextualise the Marcos administration’s claims that it had uplifted the Philippines’ economic state after the pandemic.

Speaking to diplomats in January, Marcos Jnr announced that the Philippines had recovered “from the reeling effects” of the pandemic and geopolitical conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.

He said the Philippines was one of the fastest-growing economies last year, citing data from organisations such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

Inflation in the Philippines rose slightly in February to 3.4 per cent, as prices of rice – which surged by 23.6 per cent – and other items pushed the headline figure higher. However, government authorities said this was still within its target range of two to four per cent.

“But I think it’s also worth asking whether that’s also true for many Filipinos. If we look at what their top concerns are, it appears that promise of economic recovery isn’t fully reflected on the ground yet,” Arguelles said.

Protesters hold slogans during a rally outside the Chinese consulate in Makati, Philippines calling on Beijing to end its alleged harassment of Philippine vessels in the South China Sea. Photo: AP

‘Not a foreign-policy country’

Despite Marcos Jnr earning international recognition for his actions countering aggression from China coastguard vessels in the South China Sea, Arguelles said Filipinos likely did not view this issue as urgent compared with the country’s economic issues.

“We’re not exactly a foreign-policy type of population. There are countries where voters do judge their chief executives on the basis of foreign policy and that weighs a lot on their considerations of whether they like the president or not.

“The United States is a good example of that – what the US president does outside the country and how it relates to the rest of the world, voters give weight to that,” Arguelles said.

This was seen in Filipinos’ support for former president Rodrigo Duterte, who continued to enjoy popularity until the end of his term despite favouring China in his foreign policy.

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Duterte, however, was criticised recently over his “gentleman’s agreement” with Chinese President Xi Jinping regarding the South China Sea.
Harry Roque, a former spokesman of the Duterte administration, said earlier this month that Duterte had agreed with China to maintain the status quo around the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, a move slammed by Philippine politicians including Marcos Jnr and security analysts. Following Roque’s comments, Duterte confirmed the existence of such an agreement and arranged a media conference to defend his actions.

Despite Filipinos disagreeing a lot with Duterte on his position on the West Philippine Sea, it didn’t affect his popularity among them,” Arguelles said.

As for Marcos Jnr, he could regain public support by doubling down on his economic promises during his 2022 presidential campaign and achieving “inclusive recovery”, according to Arguelles.

“It’s a matter of … the amount of resources that the government can mobilise to get back on track in terms of their economic agenda,” he said.

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