Things may be getting tougher for the government and the nation. Just when the economy seems to be poised for takeoff after over a year of Asia-pacing growth, and soon after mid-term elections handily won by the administration coalition, potentially serious problems are emerging on the economic and political fronts.
While the economy is tipped to maintain strong expansion this year, there are signs that poor, jobless Filipinos are not benefiting as they need to from the boom. As reported in the June 17 column, unemployment, hunger and poverty data are worse now than in 2009, when global recession and megafloods squeezed growth to 0.9 percent.
The plight of the destitute may get even worse if recent concerns about the global economy prove prescient. The quantitative easing policy of monetary expansion in developed countries, which has boosted investment in financial and property assets worldwide, looks set to be wound down, even as China tightens credit as well, spooking stock markets worldwide.
The Philippine stock exchange, like others around the globe, has lost massively in recent weeks. Whether rising real estate, which has fueled the building boom also boosting growth, will follow south as interest rates stop falling— that’s another pressing question. If that happens, growth and jobs may also decline even after the current typhoon season, which usually slows construction and tourism.
And one more: improving U.S. prospects and Japan’s monetary easing have strengthened the dollar vis-a-vis most currencies, the peso included. While that helps overseas Filipino workers, exporters and $16-billion-a-year business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, the weaker peso also lifts consumer prices directly hitting the poor, as fuel and water rates are now showing.
Turning to politics, the snags in peace talks with communist rebels and Muslim separatists have already spurred an escalation of attacks by the New People’s Army (NPA), with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front lately warning that MILF commanders are getting restive over the impasse over negotiations. Also causing concern is renewed activity by the terrorist Abu Sayyaf, which had teamed up with Muslim rebels in the past.
Meanwhile, continued tensions and incidents with rival claimants in disputed islands and waters add external defense pressures to the formidable internal security duties of the armed forces. The recent incident over the killing of a Taiwan fisherman by the Philippine Coast Guard has been partly resolved by a joint Manila-Taipei inquiry charging Filipino servicemen. But the two governments failed to forge a fishing agreement over their overlapping maritime economic zones.
Further on territorial issues, there may be headlines again over the Sulu Sultan’s longstanding claim over the Malaysian state of Sabah. Last March and April, hundreds of his followers, many of them armed, entered the claimed land, leading to an all-out assault by the Malaysian military, in which at least 60 Filipinos were killed. This month, there were again reports of incursions and clashes.
Going to the main political arena, the big question is over the leadership of the Senate. The Palace and administration senators are pushing for Senator Franklin Drilon, a longtime loyalist of the family of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, and most recently, campaign manager of the latter’s Liberal Party in last month’s midterm elections. Drilon’s rise moved closer with the resignation of opposition stalwart Juan Ponce Enrile as Senate President.
Already, an outspoken former president of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, has warned of dictatorial tendencies if an Aquino man heads the Senate, widely seen as the only remaining major institution not subservient to the Palace. He called for vigilance against possible constitutional amendments, while his fellow prelate, Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, worries about the return of U.S. military bases, which would require charter change.
The other half of Congress, the House of Representatives, has been pork-barreled into submission since 2010, while the Judiciary is under former Aquino schoolmate Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who also heads the Judicial and Bar Council nominating candidates for court judges. Also seen as largely supportive of Aquino are the three top newspapers, the leading broadcast network, and the main survey outfits.
Controversy may also intensify over the recent polls, which watchdog groups have criticized for dispensing with legally required safeguards for the automated election system. Tomorrow, there is a press conference on election problems to be given by AES Watch and other non-government organizations critical of the Commission on Elections and Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr., one of two former Aquino poll lawyers in the body’s governing board.
How will the Catholic leadership, especially the CBCP, respond to the foregoing issues, especially the plight of the poor, the conduct of elections, and the feared Palace control of major institutions and media? Not to mention the continuing tussle over the Aquino administration’s Reproductive Health Act promoting birth control, which has spawned fears among Catholics that laws on divorce, same-sex marriage, illegal gambling, and even abortion may be forthcoming.
Next week, the prelates meet for their semi-annual plenary, which is always watched for its pastoral statement to the Filipino faithful, who make up 85 percent of the nation. While open confrontation against the government is unlikely, the prelates cannot keep silent on birth control, poverty, election, and land reform issues they have strongly advocated for years. That includes the long-delayed distribution of the vast Hacienda Luisita of the President’s Cojuangco clan before the agrarian law expires in a year.
If the foregoing slew of economic and political troubles come together, President Aquino may have to deal with a perfect storm of problems in the typhoon months, when disasters put further strain on the populace and the public sector. His predecessor Gloria Arroyo faced a similar confluence of challenges in 2005, when crises over soaring oil prices, tough fiscal reforms, and election fraud allegations led protesters and even some of her Cabinet to call for her resignation.
Arroyo survived that difficult episode as her tax initiatives fueled an economic surge, which lifted the Philippines from Southeast Asian laggard to one of the region’s growth leaders. Now, it could be Aquino’s turn to grapple with multiple challenges on the road to the long-hoped-for national takeoff. One piece of advice: above all else, keep the economy humming.