The Philippines: where it’s at – politically
Last week, I discussed the economic standing of the Philippines and pointed out how the country’s overall economy is doing okay, despite concerns about inflation and a sinking peso. But the challenge remains — how to ensure that a greater fraction of the population benefits from the economic growth that is occurring.
On the political side, there’s a lot of fluff in the media that puts political stability into question. But the reality is there is no Red October, no coup planned. President Duterte remains in control and has no intention of resigning or extending his term.
What he does have is a genuine desire for change, a wish for a more balanced society. It explains, in part, why he has this drive for federalism, which is to distribute power more widely and equitably. His health has been questioned and would be a concern if the huge headline stories of cancer were true; they weren’t true. But we should know better how his health is. Like most 73-year-olds, his stamina is not what it used to be, yet he still puts in a full day of work.
A major criticism of Mr. Duterte is his ruthless attack to eliminate drugs. He has employed a deadly program based on fear. Several thousands have been killed and international condemnation has been intense. Philippine opposition, though, has been muted and, difficult as it is for foreigners to understand, he has lost little popularity from it. But, as elsewhere in the world, it’s a program where success will be extremely hard to achieve.
What has to be recognized is that he’s a man who speaks his mind, with negligible attention to diplomatic niceties. He expresses his emotions of the moment with little concern for their effect. Much of what he says can be discounted or will be reversed once additional facts are taken into account. He has no problem doing that.
For example, his recent announcement that he’d resign captured headlines. It shouldn’t have and should have been ignored, as it was just an expression of frustration, like we all experience at some point. Much of his action is pragmatic, as he sees fit, and often proves to be a correct approach. His early attack on Barack Obama and the United States, in the presence of Xi Jinping, and support for China and Russia horrified many. But it achieved a working relationship with a dominant bully and ended with US relations being back on track, as well as an apology by him to Obama for his harsh words.
He has an estimated 260 of the 292 congressmen on his side, and a strong ally in former president and now Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. In the Senate, his hold is less strong, but Senate President Vicente Sotto III is a firm supporter who keeps a comfortable majority.
But having a supportive Congress is not enough; speed of action is also needed, and that is just not happening. The mood of the public rejecting “trapos” (traditional politicians) in the 2016 elections to elect Mr. Duterte did not filter through into Congress—or local politics. Much as we’ve seen elsewhere in the world, people want their leaders to stop the talk and just get things done. Mr. Duterte needs to work more actively with Congress in order to speed up action.
One thing that Mr. Duterte has done that continues to amaze me is that he has broken from Philippine hierarchical culture and acknowledged that the boss isn’t always right. He has admitted his weaknesses in economics and business and left them to his economic team, led by the very competent Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez. The team works generally well together, and conflicts, when they arise, have mostly been resolved amicably. But the President needs to be involved, too.
The Muslim insurgency has remained isolated and the peace deal should end much of the unrest, although pockets might remain.
Inequality remains a serious problem, with an estimated 21.9 million Filipinos in poverty as of the latest count, albeit an improvement from 23.3 million in 2009.
I agree there are problems today, but we see those as problems no worse than many other countries also face. It’s a country still finding its way, but now on what can be reasonably assumed to be a stable growth path, with more upside opportunity than downside risk.
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