Philippines: Polling the Peace Process
September 9, 2015
On August 13, the Philippine polling organization Social Weather Stations (SWS) observed its 30th anniversary with the publication of Filipino Public Opinion on the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the Mamasapano Incident. The report is based on the results of nationwide surveys in March and June, and a February survey in Mindanao, supported by The Asia Foundation.
Since the resumption of peace talks in 2011 between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Foundation has been collaborating with SWS to measure public attitudes towards the peace agreements, along with related issues such as perceptions of Bangsamoro as an identity, views on Islam and Christianity, support for constitutional amendments, and attitudes towards public institutions, ethnic groups, and foreign countries.
The March nationwide survey and the February poll in Mindanao came roughly a month after the deadly Mamasapano incident, a government operation to capture two alleged terrorists, Basit Usman and Zulkifli Bin Hir, that tragically turned into a bloody firefight between the Special Action Forces of the Philippine National Police and elements of the MILF and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Forty-four Special Action Force members, 17 MILF fighters, and five civilians died in the fighting.
In national surveys conducted by SWS from December 2012 to June 2014, nearly half of respondents approved of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB), the peace agreement signed by MILF and the government in October 2012. Those favoring the FAB outnumbered those opposed by a 22-point margin in December 2012 and March 2013, and 26 points in March 2014. Although support for the FAB declined in June 2014, supporters still outnumbered opponents by 16 points.
In the wake of the Mamasapano incident, however, the March 2015 survey found that just 23 percent supported the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the draft bill to implement the Framework Agreement, submitted to Congress in September 2014. The June survey, less than a month after the BBL was approved for plenary debate in the House of Representatives, found just a one-point rebound in public support for the Law.
In Mindanao, on the other hand, separate February results from the projected core territories of the proposed Bangsamoro region consistently registered net approval of the Framework Agreement and the BBL, even after Mamasapano. Thus, even as nationwide sentiment turned negative, the residents of areas directly affected still approved of the peace agreements.
Public opinion polls play an important role in policy discourse in the Philippines. The news media regularly conduct informal polls and surveys on social concerns, which they share with public officials, and they draw a constant stream of opinion from social media. Nationwide surveys measure public confidence and rate the performance of the national administration and key government institutions.
In this superheated environment, scientifically rigorous opinion polling has an important public role to play. SWS regularly shares its survey results with the Third Party Monitoring Team, which monitors the implementation of the peace agreements between MILF and the government. The polls have been an important tool for promoting the peace process by increasing public understanding of the peace agreements, the BBL, and key issues such as the creation of a Bangsamoro police force. Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has cited the March SWS survey to argue that the Filipino people still prefer peaceful negotiations to military action against the MILF, despite a 17-point decline in support for negotiations after the Mamasapano incident – from 62 percent in March 2014 to 45 percent in March 2015. Teresita Quintos Deles, presidential adviser on the peace process, has called those results an “affirmation” of the need to continue the peace process.
With the latest survey results showing the BBL in apparent limbo, careful attention to public perception may help peace negotiators and advocates find the best way forward in building public support for the peace process. At the SWS publication launch, Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission and the MILF peace panel, praised the SWS for “putting science into public opinion,” and for giving a voice, both to the ordinary people of the Philippines and to the Bangsamoro people, who can now be heard, he said, by the rest of the country. Based on the February SWS results showing majority support for the BBL in the Bangsamoro core territories, Iqbal’s counterpart from the government, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, called on Congress to recognize the voices of the “people from the margins,” the people of the Bangsamoro, as the ones who will be most affected by the legislators’ decision on the BBL.
Christian Hope Reyes is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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