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Bongbong’s First Year: Die Seems Cast for Good Times
So far, no sign of following in father’s footsteps
By: Viswa Nathan
As Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was completing his first year in office as Philippine president this month, a septuagenarian politician and former lawmaker who has lived through every presidency since Marcos’s father was in office was asked how he rated the junior Marcos’s performance.
“As what? President or agriculture secretary? Disappointing on both fronts,” he replied.
But if opinion surveys are reliable yardsticks, a Social Weather Station (SWS) survey held during December 10-14, 2022 – the sixth month of the Marcos administration – found that satisfaction rating climbed to 75 percent, from 71 percent two months before – both figures higher than the 58.77 percent he received when elected.
He has steered foreign policy in direct contrast to his predecessor’s, not only by reversing into the eager embrace of the United States and the US Seventh Fleet, but by seeking stronger diplomatic contact across the board, something that former President Rodrigo Duterte disdained in foulmouthed terms.
Obviously, within a few months of taking office the son of the dictator who during the 2022 election campaign asked to be judged “not by my ancestors, but by my actions,” has won the hearts of more people than those who voted him into office.
How did he achieve this?
Some might say Marcos’s timing was lucky. In 2022, the country was coming out of Covid-19 restrictions and consumer spending was rising. In the second quarter of the year, at the end of which Marcos took the reins, household consumption expenditure exceeded PHP3.5 trillion (US$62.8 billion), exports of goods and services PHP1.3 trillion, and Gross Domestic Product PHP5.4 trillion. The economy then grew 7.6 percent, the fastest rate since 1976 when his father ruled the country by martial law.
Rajiv Biswa, the chief economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence, predicted during Marcos’s seventh month in office that: “Over the decade ahead, rapid economic growth is forecast for the Philippine economy.”
The “strong growth in the size of the Philippines economy,” said Biswas, was also expected to drive “per capita GDP from US$3,500 in 2021 to US$6,400 by 2031.” He also thinks that by 2034 the Philippines should be “set to join the ranks of a small group of countries in the Asia-Pacific region that have a GDP exceeding US$1 trillion.”
The reality is that Marcos took charge of a government with a debt burden of PHP12.79 trillion (US$229.42 billion); 18.1 percent of the population, or some 20 million people, were struggling below the national poverty line of PHP79 (US$1.41) a day, and, according to UNICEF, with 95 children dying every day from malnutrition.
So Marcos’ most daunting challenge is turning the projections into reality and ensuring that economic growth percolates down to the common people and alleviates poverty.
To attempt to do that, Marcos adopted a multi-pronged plan: provide relief to the poverty-stricken, enable farmers and fishers to increase food production, make the Philippines a preferred destination for investment, and beef up the country’s defenses to resist foreign intrusions.
To help the poor, Marcos chose the food marketing scheme called Kadiwa rolling stores, introduced during his father’s rule. It aimed to provide farmers and fishers with a direct supply channel to consumers without middlemen and transport costs. Abandoned after Marcos Sr. was deposed for massive corruption and economic mismanagement, President Rodrigo Duterte began reviving it, and Marcos is now expanding it, starting with 14 new outlets.
Additionally, Php80 million has been allocated for fishers in the Ilocos Region, Central Luzon, Pag-asa Island, and other areas near the West Philippine Sea to finance projects including facilities for preserving and processing the catch for longer shelf life.
These initiatives could have won Marcos the hearts of more than half the population living in rural communities.
In the area of investment, the Philippines has long been neglected by foreign investors. In the 12 years since 2011, the country received only US$84.05 billion in foreign investment while Malaysia got US$126.85 billion, Vietnam US$167.46 billion, and Indonesia US$325.37 billion.
So Marcos became a jet-set president, making 11 trips to 10 countries in a span of eight months. They provided opportunities for introducing to potential investors the attractions the Philippines offered. Some have criticized these trips, but they are said to have generated PHP3.48 trillion in investment pledges. For pledges to become investments, however, an environment conducive to investment, particularly the practice of the rule of law, should be fostered, and foreign investors convinced of it. There are signs of this happening.
For instance, investigations into the killings of broadcaster Percy Lapid and the Bilibid Prison middleman Jun Villamor last October and the assassination of Negros Oriental governor, Roel Degamo, in early March, were rigorously pursued, and suspects including former chief of the Bureau of Corrections Gerald Bantag have been indicted while the suspected brain behind the Degamo murder, Negros Oriental Rep. Arnolfo Teves Jr., is on the run.
Also, in a bid to cleanse the national police force of corruption and misuse of power, particularly related to drug trafficking, Interior Secretary Benjamin Abalos asked all police colonels and generals to submit their courtesy resignations. It was a markedly different approach from the method of former president Duterte’s to tackle the drug menace.
Abalos described it as the quickest way to address drug trafficking. A committee of five reviewed the profile of the police officials and five months later, in mid-June, criminal charges were filed before the Ombudsman against 50 police officers from the rank of lieutenant colonel up, for drug offenses, graft, falsification, perjury, obstruction of justice and malversation (corrupt behavior in a position of trust) of public property. Administrative cases have also been filed before the National Police Commission against 48 of the officials still in active service. All the indictments stemmed from a raid last October which led to the seizure of 990 kilos of shabu valued at PHP6.7 billion from an office warehouse owned by a police official.
Also in June, a former provincial governor, Francisco Matugas, and several others were charged before the Ombudsman, with plunder, graft, and malversation for alleged misuse of disaster funds.
In the area of press freedom, some officials still red-tag journalists who do not toe their line as rebels or communist supporters, and the Philippines ranks as a highly dangerous place in the world for journalists. Still, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has said that since the election of Marcos, the govt has “loosened constraints” on the media.
According to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines: “Nearly a year into the Marcos presidency and as dominant media adjusts to reporting on an administration that is not openly hostile to the press, it is tempting to consider that maybe the situation for media workers has improved and will continue improving.”
Former Justice Secretary and human rights campaigner Leila de Lima does remain in
“preventive detention,” possibly because Marcos is afraid of Duterte’s wrath if she is freed. Nonetheless, the die does seem cast for good years ahead if the political rivalry brewing in Marcos’ own UniTeam doesn’t kill it, and if whiffs of cronyism in government contracting and favoritism in appointing officials don’t get too strong.