“Change Underway?” IBON 2016 Yearend Birdtalk Paper (Introduction)

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Pres. Rodrigo Duterte brashly entered the national political scene on the back of widespread public dissatisfaction and with vivid promises of change. The new pro-poor administration would be different and overturn the domination of the traditional powers that keep the country poor and underdeveloped: oligarchs, corrupt politicians, drug lords and organized crime, and even mighty United States (US) imperialism. The reform platform was vague but Duterte’s commanding personality made it compelling enough to clinch a solid 16.6 million votes, the presidency, and wide popular support.

The administration moved quickly to consolidate its political position. Yet notwithstanding the president’s anti-elite pronouncements his populist reform agenda does not overhaul inequitable economic and political structures. This is most evident in the adherence to neoliberal economic policies. There has already been backtracking on campaign promises and the steady push for more anti-people neoliberal measures across the economy is carried over from the previous Aquino administration.

Six months into the new government and despite some visible differences from previous ones, there are scant signs that any major social transformation is underway. The wealth of foreign capital, oligarchs and the economic elite remains protected under the same profit-driven market-oriented economic policy framework. Foreign policy is less US-centric but remains unformed and timid in asserting sovereignty and independence from all foreign powers with self-serving geopolitical interests in the country. Traditional political elites at the national and local levels remain privileged and unchallenged. Disturbingly, glimmers of authoritarianism threaten the nascent institutions of liberal democracy in the country.

As it is, the prospects for change are getting dimmer rather than brighter. The inertia in the ruling system is powerful and real change in socioeconomic policies and political practices remains a challenge. The neoliberal economic framework is still ascendant astride a push for federalism. There is also the looming possibility of authoritarian powers being used against any opposition and perhaps even institutionalized to maintain the inequitable status quo over the longer-term.

But the situation is intrinsically unpredictable. On one hand, optimistically, pro-people campaign promises may still turn into policy with a government that takes a strong and genuine stand. A coherent pro-people agenda can sustain a groundswell of both spontaneous and organized support against elite opposition. This would immediately improve the people’s welfare and lay the basis for greater change beyond the Duterte administration. On the other hand, and increasingly likely, the traditional political powers may react more aggressively to the on-going realignment in the balance of forces. The effort to return to the pre-Duterte state of affairs would usher in a period of greater political instability perhaps even including a strong reactionary counteroffensive against the mainstream Left.

(The IBON 2016 Yearend Birdtalk Paper is available at the IBON Bookshop. )

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