Ratings for Philippine leader plunge to record low after clash

MANILA (REUTERS) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino's approval and trust ratings have plunged to their lowest ever as public anger over the killing of 44 policemen in a clash with rebels in January hurt his popularity, a pollster said on Tuesday.

The president's poor ratings could have implications for a 2016 presidential election even though he will not be standing.

A police inquiry found Mr Aquino responsible for a bungled mission against a top Malaysian bomb-maker on a southern island that sparked the Jan. 25 clash and put at risk efforts to forge peace with the country's largest Muslim rebel group.

The president's spokesman has rejected the police findings saying Mr Aquino was not part of a civilian agency chain of command and he had no responsibility for the botched mission.

A survey by independent pollster Pulse Asia, taken during the first week of March, showed Aquino's approval ratings dropped from 59 per cent to 38 per cent. His trust rating fell from 56 per cent to 36 per cent.

The previous poll was in November 2014. His highest trust ratings was 80 percent in October 2010.

"This was the largest decline in both approval and trust ratings in five years," Professor Ronald Holmes, president of Pulse Asia, told Reuters. "This was the first time the president has failed to gain a majority rating, below the 50 percent level."

Prof Holmes said the president's ratings were affected by the January clash in which at least 18 rebels were also killed. There was no immediate comment from the president's office.

Mr Aquino is not eligible for re-election under the constitution, which limits presidents to one term, but prospects for the candidate of Liberal Party in a 2016 presidential election are likely to be damaged if his popularity is undermined.

Political analysts say the January clash, known as the Mamasapano incident after the place it happened, has blown up into Aquino's biggest political crisis.

"The president has squandered too much political capital on the Mamasapano incident," Earl Parreno of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms told Reuters, "These ratings will have serious implications in the 2016 elections. An Aquino endorsement may be a kiss of death."