Zeroing out a troubling year

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

If, as they sit down for their traditional Noche Buena festivities later tonight, Filipino families have the feeling that the occasion celebrates surviving a particularly chaotic and trying year, they have good reason. For about 16 million people who were affected by Typhoon Yolanda last month, it really is a celebration of survival and perhaps, we can hope, a brief moment in which they can set aside the uncertainty of the coming year. For the rest of us, the uncertainty of the near future may not hold such grim implications, but our amazement at having gotten through 2013 may not be any less.

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What is amazing about 2013 is how quickly the Philippine illusion fell apart. At the beginning of the year, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, the country was still “an emerging tiger” with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and President B.S. Aquino 3rd was still “popular” and still mentioned in the same sentence with the term “anti-corruption.” There have been plenty of people here who thought they knew better, of course, and not a few who actually did, but from an outside perspective, the sort of broad indications by which any foreign country is judged all looked fairly good.

At year’s end, however, the image is dissolving like a lump of mud tossed into a fast-flowing stream. The explosive revelation in mid-year of a far-reaching plunder scheme involving the now officially illegal Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) raised suspicions among observers, who expected—if the impressions of the character of B.S. Aquino were at all true—that the matter would be quickly and appropriately addressed. Those suspicions only grew as further investigations and emboldened “whistle-blowers” revealed more large-scale scandals in several government agencies, and most worryingly, a money trail leading to the desk of the President himself.

That expanding cloud of greed and deceit served as a dark backdrop to a number of other, more immediately practical problems: A currency tenuously controlled only by massive intervention on the part of the central bank (funded in large part, or so it appears, by the presumably illegal ‘Disbursement Acceleration Program’ controlled by the President); a stock market that, quite apart from the debatable effects of signals from US economic policymakers or local political instability, appeared to realize its own enthusiasm-inflated levels and began to retreat; suspicious rate increases and questionable regulation of basic utilities like water and electricity; a lethally incompetent response, marked by an appalling number of instances of corruption and blatantly intentional cruelty, to the overwhelming tragedy of Typhoon Yolanda; and as the year draws to a close, a disturbing deterioration of public safety, including the brazen assassination of a small-town mayor (who, maybe not coincidentally, was a member of an opposition party) on the very doorstep of the country’s main international airport.

What 2014 has in store for the Philippines is anyone’s guess, but there is not much, if anything, that has happened in 2013 to encourage a positive outlook. Any warning from adverse court rulings and general public fury that government spending and accounting must be handled in a more ethical fashion has already been arrogantly dismissed by President Aquino and his captive legislature, who passed a budget again containing over P1 trillion in funds placed under his personal control in record time this month, which will have one of two possible results: The Supreme Court may rule the DAP illegal, which will throw the budget in turmoil since more than half of it will have to be realigned (likely requiring the authorization of Congress) into line agencies and other auditable departments, or DAP will be upheld, resulting in the same or worse sort of wholesale leakage from public coffers that has handicapped development in the first half of President Aquino’s six-year term.

Everything else that happens—or doesn’t happen—in 2014 will in some way be dependent on the looming question about the national budget, and it is critical because 2014 will be, in many ways, the last chance for the Aquino administration to achieve any sort of concrete results that may last beyond its term in office. Come 2015, the trade and other economic relationships between the Philippines and the rest of the region will change in some significant ways.

Most of 2015 will, unless the historic nature of Philippine politics unexpectedly changes, also be occupied by campaigning for the national elections in 2016.

We may, it seems, be in for some interesting and not altogether comfortable times ahead. But for today at least, we can and should set all that aside; we owe ourselves that much.  Being able to fill my public space with the obligatory “holiday message” on an actual holiday is a happy coincidence, so I would hate to let that opportunity go to waste. I would like to thank the management and editors of The Manila Times, first of all, for giving me a stump to stand on and exercising more patience than is probably justified for my casual interpretation of concepts like “word limits” and “deadlines” throughout the year. And since I’m on the topic of “patience,” I would also like to thank my wife for being supportive and critical at all the right times, and for her constant motivation. I would also like to thank The Times’ actual professional journalists (and in particular, the Bangles—Mayvelin, Kristyn, Jhoanna and Madelaine) for doing their excellent work and giving me plenty of topics to learn more about and share with you, the readers, who I thank most of all for being there and being the reason for doing this.

Merry Christmas to all. Enjoy celebrating your families, your faith, and the efforts of whomever does the cooking in your homes tonight, and for that matter, whenever else you get the chance.

benkritz@outlook.com

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