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At Large

Keep our wits about us

Photos of random folk—including the Speaker of the House and the presidential spokesperson—slumped in their seats and apparently dead to the world speak volumes about the entertainment value of the annual State of the Nation Address. Observers and analysts had been saying that this year’s version, the penultimate Sona, was the “most significant” of the Duterte presidency as it would set the tone for the remainder of his term, a summing up, if not yet a valedictory. It was also taking place amid the most serious crisis facing not just the Philippines but the whole world, although it seems to be hitting our country harder than most.

The optics were enough for the proper context. Behind the President on the podium sat Sen. Tito Sotto and Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano, distanced from each other with an acrylic barrier between them. There was no denying the heavy cloud of COVID-19 hovering over the occasion, along with the economic crisis the government had created with its heavy-handed response.

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And yet judging from the content of the speech, and the perfunctory treatment it received, COVID-19 was just a passing concern. In terms of time and attention from the President, the pandemic seemed just secondary to other issues like the Lopez family and other “oligarchs,” the abysmal performance of the major telco companies, with an obsequious bow to Chinese President Xi Jinping thrown in. This year’s Sona, sadly but expectedly, failed to live up to the hype. No wonder even his allies found the proceedings conducive to slumber.

—————A pattern seems to be emerging, however, in the way the national government is using its powers to force private businesses to bend to its will. If they resist, the iron fist of the executive and legislature, with the compliance of the courts, is used to pave the way for the effortless takeover of these concerns by friends and allies.

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Meriting headlines and raised eyebrows was the way the President went hammer and tongs against the country’s major telecommunication firms. Claiming to speak for the “unhappy” populace, PDuts warned Globe and Smart that they should improve their services by December or he would take over them “with the help of Congress.”

This, so soon after a congressional committee refused to grant the renewal of the franchise of ABS-CBN, the largest broadcasting company in the country. In his speech, Mr. Duterte even claimed that he had been a “victim” of the network during the 2016 presidential elections, making obvious his personal grudge behind the moves against the franchise application. Losing no time, his congressional allies even let slip plans to expropriate the network’s headquarters and equipment and entice the network’s employees’ union to take over.

Even before the ABS-CBN franchise denial, the same franchise committee took away the franchise of the Panay Electric Company, which had met Iloilo’s power needs for nearly a century, and awarded it instead to More Electric and Power Corp., a firm controlled by billionaire Enrique Razon, a friend of the administration. About the same time, PDuts also spoke menacingly about taking over water utilities Manila Water and Maynilad.

The point, it seems, is to pave the way for the quick and easy takeover of these utilities by individuals and companies controlled by Duterte allies.

Now the same template is being applied on Smart and Globe. This prompted former senator Sonny Trillanes to observe that PDuts “just wanted his third telco to get a free ride on the cell towers built by Smart and Globe.”

All this is being done, it appears, to smoothen the road for the “third telco” headed by Dennis Uy, the President’s fair-haired business boy. Or as Trillanes puts it: “Gusto ng Davao group (headed by Uy) na laway lang ang kapital nila, may telco na sila (The Davao group just wants to invest their saliva and they already have a telco).”

Francis Lim, who heads the Management Association of the Philippines, aired his fears that Smart and Globe could suffer the same fate as ABS-CBN. This, said Lim, “is a clear and present danger to the businesses mentioned. (Mr. Duterte) can make it happen and that sends a chilling effect to business and potential investors.”

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So while the speech itself was no great shakes and conducive to slumber, we need to keep our wits about us lest our leader steals our country without our knowing it.

—————[email protected]

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