BAD news, Philippines: The country is not really at a “turning point” after all.
We may certainly wish that was not the case, and most of us would like to believe that the Mamasapano Massacre and the appalling conduct of the nation’s leadership that has been revealed in its aftermath are so unacceptable that the only possible solution is a swift and significant change in the way the country is governed, and by whom. History, however, suggests that will not happen.
To be clear, the assessment that President B.S. Aquino 3rd will be unscathed by the current crisis and that his Administration will be able to continue to exercise its self-interested, ad hoc kind of rule should not in any way be construed as support or even tolerance for the Aquino regime. The latest controversy is indeed further evidence that the era of Aquino version 2.0 has been a complete travesty, and that it would be a grave injustice and a mockery of even the most compromised notion of democracy to suffer so much as one more minute of his awkward and embarrassing presence.
But ideals and reality meet far less often than they should, and in the current crisis they are light-years apart, for two basic reasons.
The first and probably most significant reason is that the conditions for widespread social disruption are largely absent thanks to the country’s relatively sound economy. GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2014 was an impressive 6.9 percent, and for the full year hit 6.1 percent. Those figures are likely to be adjusted downward by the end of this quarter, but not enough to drop full-year economic expansion below 6 percent; in any event, the Philippine economy certainly expanded substantially faster than its ‘break-even’ level (which is about 4 percent).
In July (the most recent month for which data is available), the combined official rate of unemployment and underemployment declined to 25 percent, a year-on-year decrease of 1.5 percent. Inflation, the most direct source of economic hardship for the general population, hit 2.4 percent in January primarily due to continuing declines in oil prices, the fifth straight month of decline from a high of 4.9 percent last August. Other indicators are positive as well. The local stock market, which this week climbed above 7,700 points, continues to be one of the world’s hottest exchanges, with a one-year gain of 31.38 percent through the end of last week. The currency likewise has been incredibly stable, despite occasional short periods of apparent volatility; in one year, it has gained just P1.05 against the US dollar, which is all the more remarkable in that it is the opposite of what should have happened in light of a rapidly strengthening dollar.
Make no mistake, the nature of the Philippines’ sort of economic growth is anything but “inclusive”—income inequality is growing faster than the rate of upward economic mobility, and that tends to entrench a segment of the population in chronic poverty. But that discrepancy also means that conditions for the country’s thin middle class—individual citizens as well as medium-sized enterprises are improving and becoming more secure, even if the economic segment is not growing particularly quickly. And of course, the highest income segments are doing very well.
These conditions mean that people and businesses with disposal or discretionary income are not experiencing having to shift that income to necessities. Unless that happens, they are very unlikely to be moved to support a change in the status quo.
The second basic reason is purely political. There is no alternative leader or even a common concept of governance around which opposition to Aquino’s being allowed to revel in his ignorance can coalesce. At best, there is a patchwork of ineffectual, idealistic groups all clamoring for attention, with none having a leader or the possibility of recruiting one that would clearly be different than the current leader.
The underlying conditions necessary to make a regime change are therefore almost completely absent, and the regime itself has cleverly ensured the possibility of resistance to it based on principles never finds a foundation in public knowledge: The chief culprit in the Mamasapano tragedy has been handed his “get away with it” card by the president (probably letting the former head of the national police off the hook for a serious unrelated graft case in the process), and the inability of the factions within the phantom “opposition” to cooperate with one another has led to, among other things, no fewer than eight announced “investigations” into the botched raid.
So Aquino is safe, for now. That may change in a couple months’ time; when the anticipated “deadline” for passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (sometime in August) comes and goes with no measure signed, the inevitable increase in unrest in the south might prove more problematic for the navel-gazing president. Until that time, however, things will continue much as they have for the past four years.
That’s the reality; how the people and business community of the Philippines want to come to terms with that—resigning themselves to it, finding ways to profit from it, or trying to change it—is up to them.