Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - While criticised for his handling of the ongoing Sabah crisis, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III continued to enjoy high approval ratings, the latest Pulse Asia survey showed.
In the survey, conducted from February 24 to 28, the president registered an approval rating of 68 per cent and a trust rating of 70 per cent.
The survey used face-to-face interviews with 1,800 registered voters aged 18 and older. It had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2 percentage points.
The government has drawn flak for its handling of the Sabah crisis, which has dragged on for more than a month as armed followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III refuse to leave the Malaysian-controlled territory.
Malaysia launched full-scale operations to flush out Kiram's followers earlier this month, with more than 62 men from the so-called Sulu royal army and 10 Malaysian security men killed in fire fights.
Hundreds of Filipinos have fled Sabah amid the fighting.
"Let me also state that the Sabah situation did not affect the approval ratings of the president," Edwin Lacierda, presidential spokesman, said in the Palace briefing.
Asked if the results of the survey reflected how Filipinos viewed the government's handling of the standoff, Lacierda, however, said: "I cannot evaluate it."
The president has been criticised for the loss of Kiram's June 2010 letter to him over the sultanate's claim to Sabah, his tough stance against the sultanate in Manila, and the government's helplessness to stop Malaysian violence against Filipinos in Sabah, among other issues.
The government has employed back-channel talks with the Kirams, including Jamalul and his brother Agbimuddin who led armed followers to Sabah, but all these bogged down.
Aquino also directed Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., the Department of Justice and the Department of Foreign Affairs to draw up a "peaceful road map" for the Sabah claim.
In a March 2 phone conversation with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Aquino requested that the 800,000 Filipinos who had nothing to do with the incursion be spared from the violence.
To deal with the influx of undocumented Filipinos fleeing Sabah, the President dispatched social welfare and labour officials to Mindanao to provide assistance.
Lacierda said the Palace was elated by the results of the poll.
"We are certainly happy that despite all the concerns, the people continue to repose their trust on the president. This is an affirmation of the governance of President Benigno S. Aquino III," he said.
While taking the time to join his senatorial slate's campaign, the President still gives priority to government efforts to resolve the Sabah crisis and other pressing governance matters, said reelectionist Sen. Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III.
Pimentel, among 12 senatorial candidates on the ticket of Aquino's Team PNoy, also called on the public to support the Palace moves to end the crisis, saying the president had access to enough information on the matter before deciding what course of action to take.
Asked to respond to criticism of the Palace's handling of the crisis, Pimentel said Aquino still took time to attend to the Sabah problem even while on the campaign trail.
"When we were in Pampanga, he came up the stage then he went down and went to a special room because he was studying the developments in Sabah," Pimentel told Inquirer editors and reporters on Tuesday.
He said the president also discussed the matter with his candidates in their private gatherings, bouncing off ideas on how to end the conflict even if there was "no active solicitation" of advice.
But Pimentel said Aquino should not be faulted for campaigning for his slate amid the unresolved conflict in the south.
"Governance is not only Sabah. Number 2, you can govern the country even when you're not in the Palace given that we are now in the technological age. So, the Sabah incident should not prevent him from doing other things. Campaigning should be allowed," Pimentel said.
He also called on the public to trust the president's decisions and course of action on the Sabah dispute.
Pursue Sabah claim
Saying he is not in favour of dropping the Philippine claim to Sabah, Pimentel has recommended to the government the formation of an expert panel on the Sabah dispute and the option of extending assistance to the Sulu sultanate in pressing for ownership of the territory.
With a report from Inquirer Research