MANILA, Philippines?Weakening support by the poor for presidential candidate Manuel Villar Jr. and their steady backing of Benigno Aquino III have given Aquino a clear lead over Villar, according to results of a nationwide survey conducted by Social Weather Stations (SWS) this month.
At the same time, there was a surge in support by the rich and middle class for Aquino and a huge drop in their support for Villar.
As a result, voters? preference for Villar dropped 6 percentage points from 34 percent in February to 28 percent in the SWS survey conducted from March 19 to 22.
It was the first decline in the numbers of Villar, standard-bearer of the Nacionalista Party (NP), since December last year.
The rating of Aquino, Liberal Party (LP) presidential candidate, increased by just 1 point to 37 percent, but this arrested for the first time the steady decline in his ratings over the past four months, according to the newspaper BusinessWorld, which has the exclusive right of first publication of the survey results.
Following Aquino and Villar in the SWS survey were deposed President Joseph Estrada (19 percent, up 4 points), administration candidate Gilberto Teodoro Jr. (stuck at 6 percent), Bagumbayan candidate Sen. Richard Gordon (3 percent, up 1 point), and Bangon Pilipinas standard-bearer Bro. Eduardo ?Eddie? Villanueva (2 percent, down 1 point).
At the bottom of the list were John Carlos ?JC? de los Reyes of Ang Kapatiran (0.3 percent), and independent candidates Nicanor ?Nick? Perlas (0.1 percent) and Sen. Jamby Madrigal (0.04 percent).
Margin of error
The survey had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.2 percentage points for national figures.
SWS asked 2,100 registered voters nationwide?300 in Metro Manila and 600 each in the rest of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao?whom they would vote for president if elections were held at the time.
The respondents were asked to privately fill out a ballot containing the names of the official candidates in alphabetical order.
The margin of error was plus-or-minus 6 points for Metro Manila and plus-or-minus 4 points for the three other areas.
Ahead in areas, classes
Aquino led in all areas and socioeconomic classes, though his ratings dropped in Metro Manila (from 42 to 39 percent) and in Mindanao (from 35 to 32 percent).
?Villar saw his support eroded in almost all geographic areas and socioeconomic classes, except in Metro Manila where he kept his score of 20 percent, keeping him third behind [Aquino (39 percent) and] Estrada (27 percent),? BusinessWorld reported.
Villar suffered a 7-point drop in areas of Luzon outside Metro Manila and the Visayas (from 37 to 30 percent), and a 6-point decrease in Mindanao (from 33 to 27 percent).
Estrada gained 5 points in Luzon outside Metro Manila (from 13 to 18 percent) and 6 points in Mindanao (from 20 to 26 percent).
Loss of support
Loss of support for Villar was stark among those in Class ABC, with his rating plunging 16 points, from 33 to 17 percent. Aquino?s rating jumped from 30 to 45 percent in Class ABC.
Among members of Class D, Villar?s rating fell 7 points from 34 percent to 27 percent, while that of Aquino stayed at 38 percent.
In Class E, Villar?s rating dropped 3 points from 34 percent to 31 percent, while that of Aquino increased by 1 point from 32 percent to 33 percent.
Villar attributed the drop in his rating to black propaganda employed by his rivals.
?For the past months, the black propaganda hurled at me was too much. They invented a lot of stories, which were all lies,? he told reporters in Naga City when asked to comment on the SWS survey.
Villar, however, pointed out that the drop in his rating was not disturbing because Aquino?s lead was still single digit. He said he was able to cut Aquino?s 50-percent lead last year to a ?mere single digit.?
Even so, Villar acknowledged that he had to make some ?adjustments? in his campaign strategy.
He laughed off claims that he did not come from the ranks of the poor.
?They say I?m not poor ? that?s funny? funny but irritating. When I was telling my mother about it, I didn?t know if I, we would be angry or just laugh at it. However, whoever doubts that my mother once sold shrimp, I will gladly accompany him or her to my mother,? he said.
Aquino said his personal touch was finally paying off. ?The refocused campaign has clarified our message. We intend to redouble our efforts,? he said in a text message.
Aquino took over his campaign last month after his ratings steadily fell and his message of change and putting an end to corruption failed to connect with voters.
Aquino got some help from LP senatorial candidate Sergio ?Serge? Osmeña III in putting his campaign in tighter focus, according to LP campaign manager Florencio ?Butch? Abad.
Aquino?s strategy was to visit as many provinces as he could before the start of campaigns for local elections on March 26 and maximizing his personal appearance by conducting radio interviews in provincial broadcast stations.
Explaining Aquino?s lead over Villar, Abad said the time limit on campaign ads imposed by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) finally caught up with Villar.
Abad said the Comelec-imposed time limits had put an end to the NP standard-bearer?s ?unlimited spending? on his ads, which fueled his surge in the previous surveys. (A national candidate is limited to 120 minutes of TV ads and 180 of radio ads.)
Because the LP has also come out with its own ads, ?there is now a parity between us when it comes to that,? he added.
?Secret Arroyo candidate?
Abad said Villar also lost points in almost all sectors because the public was beginning to perceive him as the secret candidate of the unpopular Arroyo administration, especially with the recent defections to the NP camp of administration stalwarts.
Villar has dismissed such allegation as another black propaganda by the LP camp.
?The last one to cross over was (former Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis) Chavit Singson. But before that you had (Bukidnon) Gov. (Jose) Zubiri, Bohol Gov. Eric Aumentado and Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas,? Abad said.
Abad said the ?unlimited? spending of Villar on his ads might have also boomeranged against him because the public was concerned about how he was going to recoup it.
Abad said there were also growing questions about the accuracy of Villar?s ads that portrayed him as someone who was dirt poor before he became a billionaire.
?The issues raised by (Inquirer columnist) Winnie Monsod about the veracity of his ads are quite serious and they are growing,? Abad said.
In her column, Monsod said a copy of the death certificate of Danny, Villar?s younger brother, showed that he died in 1962 at the FEU hospital, belying the presidential candidate?s claim in his TV ad that his brother died because the family had no money for medicine and proper health care. Monsod added that Danny stayed at the hospital for 13 days and that Funeraria Paz handled the funeral arrangements.
?And in this campaign, he is not the only one running as the pro-poor candidate. Erap (Estrada) is also doing that, while Noynoy (Aquino) is (campaigning as) the clean candidate,? he said.
Villar described as ?lies? reports that his family was able to afford the hospitalization of his cancer-stricken brother.
While acknowledging that his brother was rushed to the FEU hospital, Villar said Danny was admitted as a charity patient. ?During an emergency case, you go to the nearest hospital and worry later where to get the money to pay the bill,? he said.
Eventually, however, Danny died because Villar?s family could not afford the cost of his treatment.
Villar said that when his family decided to hire the services of Funeraria Paz for the burial of his brother, this did not mean that they were flush with cash.
He claimed that the ?heightened attacks? against him happened after he gained support from a number of local politicians around the country. This ?clearly showed? that his foes were in a ?panic? mode, Villar said.
Abad said Villar?s ratings also dropped because of allegations of corruption against him in the C-5 road extension controversy and in other cases involving his real estate business.
A son of Estrada said Filipinos were starting to see behind Villar?s massive TV ad campaign that he was neither a leader of the opposition nor a champion of the poor.
?Filipinos are in search of a sincere leader. That is why in spite of the many ads of Villar and his projecting himself as a member of the opposition, he is still falling in the surveys,? said San Juan Mayor Joseph Victor ?JV? Ejercito, who is running for the city?s representative in Congress.
?How can (Villar) claim that he is a member of the opposition when not once did he ever take a strong stand against (President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo)?? Ejercito said.
In a statement coursed through his spokesperson Margaux Salcedo, Estrada said Villar had yet to connect with the poor.
?The surveys say that people are looking for two things in a president: That he cares for the poor and that he is a member of the opposition,? Salcedo said. Reports from Cyril L. Bonabente, Inquirer Research, Michael Lim Ubac, Philip C. Tubeza, Gil Cabacungan and Norman Bordadora