Pres. Rodrigo Duterte started his term as a potentially powerful unifier of the nation, but he is now unfortunately its biggest source of division.
Last year, he spoke of resuming peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), bringing all Moro groups together in an undivided peace process, and upholding the people’s interests versus oligarchs. Yet a year later, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is launching an all-out war against the New People’s Army (NPA), the talks wth the NDFP have been cancelled, the military is attacking Moro and Lumad communities, the poor are being executed in an ill-conceived war on drugs, and narrow oligarch and foreign investor interests are being upheld.
In the president’s state of the nation address (SONA), it would be reassuring to hear real openness to peace talks, courage to order the military to stand down, and boldness to declare that economic policy will have a pro-poor and pro-Filipino bias. The presidency is a powerful position to push for real social, economic and political reforms that benefit the majority of Filipinos.
But the SONA may instead repeat macho posturing. The anti-drugs and anti-terror rhetoric is calculated to project the image of a benevolent strongman and, in effect, to justify greater authoritarianism and martial law. There has already been so much of this that it is no longer enough to stop the rhetoric – upholding even simple liberal democratic values needs an explicit retraction.
The SONA should focus on the serious socioeconomic issues that still bedevil tens of millions of the poorest Filipinos. The president will hopefully mention that the economy shed 393,000 jobs since last year to underscore the urgency of shifting from the current exclusionary growth path.
However, it would not be helpful if the SONA overstates what the flagship ‘Build! Build! Build!‘ infrastructure projects can do. These big-ticket projects mainly benefit the National Capital Region (NCR, which takes up 44% of the identified budgets so far) and the Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog regions (19%). The biggest corporations in these areas will be the biggest beneficiaries.
The flagship projects are also overwhelmingly transport projects which take up 94% of total identified budgets. This is not the economic and social infrastructure urgently needed by the poorest Filipinos or by backward rural and even urban areas in the rest of the country. The ‘Build! Build! Build!‘ program will at best be a short-term boost that keeps the economy on its path of exclusionary growth.
The administration’s neoliberal economic policies worsen the already vast divide between the few rich and the many poor Filipinos. But its irrational wars create even more divisions. Tens of millions of Filipinos are vilified on the say-so of a benevolent autocrat – people and communities asserting their human rights are ‘enemies of the state’, poor alleged drug users and pushers are vermin to be exterminated. The upcoming SONA is potentially, but unlikely to be a moment where the nation can unite on the problems they face.