2017 SONA: Change is not always for the better

Illustration by Francis Busok IBON@2017

Sonny Africa

Among Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s idiosyncrasies is preferring a vulgar stream-of-consciousness approach in his speeches. This is even for the annual state of the nation address (SONA) at the opening of Congress which is undoubtedly the government’s highest-profile policy speech of the year. The president’s choice is a matter of style but then this also means that his SONAs shouldn’t be analyzed the way other presidents’ SONAs are – that is, as a coherent comprehensive statement of the administration’s policies and priorities.

Having said that, Pres. Duterte’s 2017 SONA can still be interpreted against everything else he has been doing in the past year. What becomes clear is that he continues to build his image and behave as a benevolent paternalistic strongman.

This is dangerous, anti-democratic, and anti-development especially in the specific conditions of the country. The Philippines’ political institutions are underdeveloped with a strong patronage-clientelist streak. The military and police are abusive and violate human rights with impunity. Oligarchic and business elites abuse their economic power with the backing of the government.

Authoritarianism was unfortunately prominent in the president’s SONA and in his press conference afterwards. He played up the need for a forceful – even militarist – approach to dealing with the country’s problems.

The president repeatedly highlighted the importance of the military and police and strengthening them with tens of thousands of additional troops and hardware. He took a combative stance against millions of Filipinos – “anarchic” Leftists occupying the streets, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), Lumad schools, Moro who will “side [against] government”, and poor alleged drug users and pushers. He defended martial law as an expedient way to deal with peace and order problems, never mind that this is excessive and unnecessary. And he again pitched for the death penalty for “deterrence” as well as “retribution”.

The president also trivialized human rights and due process. These were portrayed as a hindrance to tackling the menace of illegal drugs, criminality and corruption. The military and police were also assured of impunity with the president declaring: “I have your backs.” And yet these are such basic liberal democratic values.

The president, in discussing his tax reform program, was appreciative of a sycophant Congress yet threatening to those uncooperative. He commended the 246 members of the House of Representatives (HOR) who supported his anti-poor and pro-rich tax reform bill. But, with the measure now in the hands of the Senate, he also threatened the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee for being critical especially of the tax program’s anti-poor aspects.

The president’s SONA had precious few fragments of reforms. The most prominent was prioritizing the environment over mining and other destructive activities. Also potentially important was the exhortation to set up mineral processing and manufacturing industries in the country, notwithstanding ambiguity if these would be genuinely Filipino or just foreign firms setting up shop in the country. The budget for assistance to overseas Filipino workers was doubled to over Php1 billion. He also dramatically told the sick to go to any hospital and just say that the president would take care of their expenses.

And yet the 2017 SONA was actually dismissive of the serious socioeconomic problems the country is facing. There was no acknowledgement that the economy actually shed almost 400,000 jobs in the first year of the Duterte administration and that poverty remains deep and widespread among tens of millions of Filipinos. There was no sign that the president grasped how neoliberal Arroyonomics and Aquinomics resulted in rapid growth, profits and wealth for a few amid poverty and joblessness for the many.

There was, if anything, oversimplification to bolster the drive to authoritarianism: “The economy surges when there is peace and order.”

This is blind to the long-standing and deep structural inequities that keep the economy underdeveloped. Landlords and rural elites take the greatest part of what landless peasants and farmworkers produce. Capitalists exploit workers through low wages and scant benefits, and charge consumers the highest prices they can. Domestic agriculture and industry are stifled to preserve foreign capital’s markets and sources of raw materials.

Indeed, the talk of “investor confidence” and “protecting local and foreign investors” is a virtual defense of these inequities. A declaration to uphold a bias for the disenfranchised and propertyless poor in the economic sphere would have been much more welcome. The impression instead is of growing authoritarianism as the political framework to press the neoliberal economic agenda against growing protest and opposition.

These are alarming developments in the state of the nation. The tens of thousands of rallyists outside the Batasan complex and many thousands more across the country are however vivid expression of people asserting their social and economic rights. The administration would do well to heed their grievances and demands. They are the real forces of change that, looking beyond particular administrations, play the long game of bringing the nation forward to a democratic and developed future for the people.—IBON Features

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