Two days before one of the world’s most powerful typhoons rammed into the Philippines, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III had a simple, but ambitious target for all government agencies: zero casualties.
Fast-forward a week: Thousands are dead, anger is growing over the slow relief effort and Aquino’s once unassailable popularity is under threat — along with the reforms that have helped transform the Philippines into one of Asia’s fastest-growing and hottest emerging economies.
Aquino faces a challenge that could define and undermine his presidency in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, whose 313kph winds and tsunami-like wall of water turned coastal regions into corpse-strewn wastelands.
The 53-year-old heir to a political dynasty appears to have been caught off guard by the magnitude of the devastation and has struggled to quell the growing frustration among survivors.
He has appeared only briefly on TV, including once from the city of Tacloban huddling with local officials, and again at the Malacanang presidential palace to announce a national calamity. Other media appearances, from both Manila and the affected areas, have been rare.
“He should have grasped the enormity of the crisis,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms in Manila. “This could be big. If nothing happens in the next week or so, and the rehabilitation goes haywire, he will have a big political problem.”
Aquino spokesman Herminio Coloma defended the president’s performance, but said criticism of the government was understandable.
The president had avoided visits to the hardest-hit areas so stretched local government officials were not distracted from relief work, Coloma added.
“We do not deny that there may have been shortcomings, but that is borne out of severe constraints... The severity and magnitude of this disaster are unprecedented and unparalleled in our previous experience,” he said.
While in Tacloban on Sunday last week, Aquino refused to believe reports that the city of 220,000 people was 95 percent devastated, with looting in some parts, according to an official who was there when the president met local authorities.
He complained that disaster officials were giving him conflicting reports, with no reliable information after the typhoon brought down telephone and power lines, said the source, who declined to be identified so he could speak candidly.
One TV network quoted Aquino as telling the head of the disaster agency that he was running out of patience.
Philippine Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino was just “discouraged” with the incomplete data he was getting.
Compounding Aquino’s problems is the slow delivery of aid. For the first six days, the government distributed only 50,000 “food packs” containing 6kg of rice and canned goods each day, covering just 3 percent of the 1.73 million families affected, according to government figures
As desperation grew, local media have begun to question Aquino’s leadership.
“Who’s in charge here?” ran a headline in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Thursday.
The stakes are high for Aquino — and for the Philippines, whose economy has been one of the most robust in Asia this year. After winning control of Congress in May elections, Aquino plans to lift spending on roads and airports to a record next year to attract more investment.