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PHILIPPINES


 

 

Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 80,574 77,076 71,400 43
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,080 1,020 1,050 135
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 083 - (26/01/11)


A year of hope?
Talk with foreign business people returning from the Philippines and you will catch an air of despondency; nothing has changed and the same old problems plague the conduct of business. Some will tell you they are making money but many will tell you the opposite. All of them will admit that “making money is hard...” So, it is supposed to be easy?

Filipinos though continue to maintain a cautious optimism. Six month’s into the Aquino presidency, the unbridled optimism that was apparent when Aquino was elected to lead the country by an overwhelming margin is now more tempered. Nevertheless Filipinos are thankful that decency has been returned to government. Indeed a Social Weather Stations poll taken in November 2010 suggested that 93 percent of Filipinos were approaching 2011 with an optimistic outlook.

Possibly, one reason continues to be the simple fact that people no longer live with as much fear.

This past month (January 20) saw the 10th anniversary of (then) Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo taking her oath of office as president of the land. That event marked the demise of the Estrada presidency. It was the culmination of four days of riots in Manila, known as Edsa Dos (the second people’s power revolt in which a president was ousted). Yet, it was an anniversary that went by unnoticed by most people.

The original People’s Power revolution known as “Edsa” (after the main arterial road, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, which provided the stage for the event) has been commemorated each year since 1986. That non-violent protest drew crowds of more than two million and resulted in the overthrow of the Marcos presidency, the end of martial law and the restoration of democratic government. Sadly, the early promise of a rebirth was stopped in its tracks; politics remain in the hands of same elite and privileged group coming either from the provincial dynasties or the senior echelons of the military. Nevertheless during the 1980s and 1990s, first under the presidency of the late Cory Aquino (wife of slain opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. and mother of the current president) and then under President Fidel Ramos, the country appeared to be reviving both politically and economically. Then it all started to unravel.

In 1998 at the end of the Ramos term, a popular movie actor, was elected to the presidency by a wide margin of the popular vote. Despite having a huge following among the dispossessed masa, Joseph Estrada (or “Erap” to his friends) squandered his advantage with much publicized binge drinking and womanizing. The poor loved him in spite of it all - after all he was one of them (or such was the image he had created throughout his movie career) but it gave his political opponents a powerful weapon. In the end his social excesses provided the excuse to remove him; but they were not the root cause.

Despite his lack of finesse, Estrada had surrounded himself with a powerful economic team that was on the verge of creating real reform and opening the country much more widely to foreign investment. However, perceptions of cronyism and corruption along with the threatened dismantling of powerful domestic monopolies in real estate, retailing and in transportation was too much to bear by those with the economic clout and they agitated against him.

Ten years ago during the first weeks of 2001, a televised Senate impeachment trial quickly turned to debacle when Estrada’s supporters moved to suppress evidence that would have convicted him of corruption; and the Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, voted 11-10 in favour of Estrada. The prosecution panel walked out of the proceedings in protest. This became a rallying point for anti-Estrada protesters who gathered at the site of the original Edsa protest, creating the “second People’s Power revolt” - or Edsa dos. Quickly similar protests developed throughout the country.

On January 19, Angelo Reyes, the Chief of Staff of the Philippines armed forces, seeing the deteriorating situation on the streets and not wishing to use the Philippines armed forces against its own citizenry announced he was withdrawing support from Estrada and the following morning, in what was later to become a highly disputed decision, the Supreme Court of the Philippines declared the presidency vacant. At noon that day, Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was sworn in as the 14th president by the Chief Justice of the Philippines Hilario Davide Jr.

It was a hopeful ceremony. Arroyo was a trained economist and had a reputation as a workaholic. Things soured quickly. That early hope turned to concern as it became clear that there was an increasingly wide gulf between what President Arroyo said and what she did. In the beginning, most people - this writer included - who had arrived in Manila just in time to watch the televised impeachment trial of Estrada - were prepared to give President Arroyo the benefit of the doubt. She was certainly saying all the right things and after several years of chaos, strong government was sorely needed: you don’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. That at least was the rationalization.

But popularity eluded her. Placed in a position of power by the same elite group to which she belonged (after all, she was the daughter of a former president), she remained aloof and was never trusted by the mass of the population which remained loyal to Estrada. Almost from the outset she feared that she too could be ousted by a popular uprising (at least so those “in the know” claim). She was to exert much of her presidency to ensuring she would be insulated from such a possibility.

One respected Filipino newspaper in an editorial commenting on the forgotten anniversary described the Arroyo presidency as a “walk of shame” and a “quagmire of scandal and influence.” The excesses were breathtaking in their arrogance and in their brazen betrayal of public trust, but most ordinary Filipinos shrugged their shoulders believing they could do nothing, while those who were politically astute hopped on board for the ride lest they too should find themselves the target of political wrath. “Those who are not with us are against us”, seemed to be the rallying cry.

Yet there were elections in 2010, despite the fears of many that Arroyo would find a reason to call off the poll and the people elected to office a candidate who was as far from the character of his predecessor as could be imagined. People were relieved that the trauma of the Arroyo years could finally be laid to rest.

But can they? Arroyo made sure that while she was in power she could never be removed; she has also made sure that now out of power, she remains a force to be reckoned with. An 11th hour stacking of the Supreme Court with those close to her, fixed term appointments to other positions of influence - many of them so called “midnight” appointments made just days before stepping down. While no longer president, she has re-entered politics as congresswoman from her native province of Pampanga (along with other members of her family) and continues to agitate for charter change to a parliamentary system of government - with her as prime minister and the presidency reduced to a figurehead role.

In short, she remains a “spoiler” for any hope of political rebirth in the Philippines and while she continues in this role, many people will continue to hedge their bets - the traditional political expediency of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

So as is so often the case, we therefore have to temper our optimism with a note of caution. Real change will not come quickly and it may take a decade for the institutions damaged during the arroyo years to recover - assuming they are allowed to do so.

And as we have said before, the best thing the Philippines has going for it right now is a caring presidency and an administration that seeks to do good. Already there are signs of this policy at work: the first four of 11 PPP projects are expected to be contracted during this year - possibly during the second quarter. These 11 projects announced towards the end of 2010 including four airports (expected to be first to be offered), three tollways and four light rail lines. By contracting with the private sector for these projects, the government will have more funds to invest in social development such as education and health. Government finances have been improving of late with more revenue gains from increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco and through an amnesty program for delinquent companies that have fallen behind in their social security contributions. Banks are taking a more positive attitude towards foreign investment in the Philippines and are predicting that the Peso will be one of the strongest performing Asian currencies in the year ahead. All of this is good stuff to hear.

But we will leave the last word to recent newspaper editorial:

“The country has gained a new mood, one tinged with hope, and decency or morality or a sense of right and wrong has crept back to the land. At least the ordinary citizen can wake up without expecting government to screw him at every turn, and murder him if he protests too much, as political activists are wont to do. That is palpable, that is tangible, that is real.

2011 as a year of hope? Hopefully!

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