The true state of the nation
On July 23, President Duterte will stand in front of both houses of Congress and deliver his third State of the Nation Address (Sona). There has been a lot of talk leading up to the Sona about all the preparations being made for it. Popular film director Joyce Bernal will be directing it; she has said she’ll emphasize how much Mr. Duterte loves the country.
The President himself said he will keep the speech short at not more than 35 minutes by sticking to the script. That would be a first; his first Sona lasted for an hour and 32 minutes, and his second went even longer at two hours.
All this talk about what will be in the Sona and how it will be put together betrays the fact that the Sona is, for all intents and purposes, a show—a big piece of razzle-dazzle. The truth about the state of the nation may be found elsewhere.
The Philippine peso, for instance, has slipped to its lowest level against the US dollar in 12 years; it’s now at a startling P53.23 to $1. Inflation has risen to an alarming 5.2 percent, the highest in the last five years, much higher than what the government said it expected. Malacañang has pooh-poohed these developments; according to presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, “there is nothing wrong with the economy… As I have always said, it’s a matter of record that we are the second fastest growing economy in the world; level optimism is at an all-time high, manufacturing output is at an all-time high.”
Still, how does one square that chirpy assessment with the widespread economic anxiety being felt in the land? An April Pulse Asia survey revealed that, for Filipinos across all socioeconomic classes, the two biggest concerns are raising workers’ pay and halting inflation, as prices of consumer goods continue to rise. From classes ABC to class E (the poorest), the issue everyone is most worried about is inflation. The controversial Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Law the Duterte administration championed is being blamed by many ordinary Filipinos for causing the spike in prices; the corresponding decrease in personal income tax under the law has been apparently insufficient to ease the economic squeeze.
What are the people least concerned about? Charter change and the shift to federalism—two projects that have occupied much of the energy and focus of the Duterte administration despite the palpable lack of public support for them.
Another poll—this time from Social Weather Stations (SWS)—reveals a bleak landscape in terms of jobs and employment. The May survey reported that the number of unemployed Filipinos over the age of 18 has increased to 10.9 million people, just in the first quarter of 2018. This 23.9-percent joblessness is 8.2 points higher than in December 2017 (7.2 million adults). The reality out there implied by the numbers is grim: Rampant joblessness, aggravated by inflation, is forcing more Filipinos than ever to struggle with hunger and poverty.
Politically vulnerable members of Congress are sensing the sour mood, and have suggested that the Duterte administration either ensure the prompt implementation of the social welfare component of the TRAIN Law, which mandates providing discounts and benefits to poor families and low-wage earners as mitigating measures, or suspend the law for now.
Will the SWS survey results reporting that Mr. Duterte’s satisfaction rating has fallen to an all-time low of 45 percent in the second quarter—a significant drop of 11 points—alarm the administration enough to rethink its priorities? There isn’t much to inspire that hope, given the bullheadedness and track record of this President. But responsible members of the Cabinet ought to summon the gumption to prod their boss and his closest advisers to begin paying closer attention to the public’s real sentiments.
The Sona would be the perfect occasion to announce such a redirection, but is anyone holding one’s breath that Malacañang will acknowledge its shortcomings and blind spots at this point? With economic pain rippling across the land, Bernal has her work cut out for her—how to portray a President and an administration still in touch with the gut concerns of an increasingly anxious people.
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