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Pandemic Politics in the Philippines, Final Part

The Philippine pandemic situation mirrors other countries that of slowly inching back to some new normal where some parts of the country will still on Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), General Community Quarantine (GCQ) or opening up for some low risk regions, provinces or communities. With a second or third wave of infections is very much a distinct possibility, the country will be going in ups and downs as it tries to navigate a delicate balance between health and safety of citizens and the health of the economy.

As we look ahead to the coming months, political activities will most likely be curtailed between now and the campaign season. President Duterte’s emergency powers will expire next month but with the second waver already underway according to Secretary of Health Francisco Duque, there is good likelihood that it might get extended.

With that backgrounder, it will be worthwhile to start looking ahead and see what it is going to be like for the Philippines in the coming years. With emerging political strategies already in play, Duterte’s anointed will most likely be in better shape politically. As it stands, Vice President Leni Robredo will most like be the opposition’s bet.

Unless Duterte screws up big time, he will continue to ride a high approval rating particularly among the middle classes and the poor which constitutes the majority of voters in the country. While there is an ongoing divide between the middle class and the poor because of COVID-19 where the government has focused its relief goods and cash aids to lower income people; the middle working class is protesting their exclusion. This class envy, however, will be pacified as soon as Congress passes the next round of subsidies that will benefit them.

But that will just be part of the whole political strategy. The global economy is already in deep trouble amidst the pandemic and new strategies from big economies will emerge that will deeply impact the Philippines. While the Philippine economic outlook is not good in the near term, Duterte’s authoritarian power moves will help him steer the country economically in the next couple of years that will disadvantaged Robredo.

Robredo’s meticulously cultivated image of that of a modern day Joan of Arc and successor-apparent to the original Philippine Joan of Arc, Cory Aquino; is heartwarming but will cost her the 2022 presidential elections, if she does implement course correction pronto. Her strategy seems to continue cater to her elite supporters who enjoys her pro-Catholic Church, pro-oligarch (ABS-CBN), pro-poor mantra. If she is running to become a saint, then she’s fine but to be president, she needs to breach the 14 million votes she got in 2016. Duterte is more potent.

Here’s why. The Philippines will be saddled with more debts because of the pandemic response. Even if the whole country is fully open, economic recovery will be slow with many government agencies (BIR, Customs, etc.) not meeting their income targets because of slow tourism, high unemployment, and lower remittance from OFWs because of furloughs or lack of employment opportunities in other countries who were equally devastated by the pandemic.

Hence, Duterte will have to turn to the country’s billionaires for help. It will be mutually beneficial for the oligarchs to kowtow if they want to recover some of their bottom lines or risk losing their business altogether with Duterte’s draconian measures under the name of the emergency. Either way, Robredo risks losing the oligarch’s campaign money.

Sinophobia is running high in the Philippines but Robredo is not doing her part to lessen it. Her supporters are banking on President Robredo to keep its distance from China. Well, the hard reality is that regardless of who becomes president, China will remain a strong Philippine partner because of economic realities. China is severely hit economically as well but so is the United States and Europe. China is stepping up and filling the leadership vacuum that the United States has created with President Donald Trump’s “America First” retreat.

By turning inward, the U.S. will not significantly help the Philippines because of its own debt problems and domestic issues. Trumps reelection hangs in the balance with the upcoming November election just months away. China on the other hand is focused on maintaining its presence in South China Sea and will therefore try very hard to help the Philippines rebound. So, expect POGO casinos to start business and the influx of Chinese tourist flooding Philippine destinations.

The ABS-CBN franchise brouhaha is a political master play. Franchise renewal is a congressional function and allowing the franchise to expire gave Duterte more leverage to deal with the Lopezes who owns the media giant and domestic utility companies. The quo warranto case now pending in the Supreme Court is like the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over the clan’s head. If the court voids the franchise, the Lopezes know that they will not get one under this administration. Lopez’ surrogate Vicky Garchitorena arrogant explanation that the clan will wait it out for the next president is just ego-feeding.

By proposing a limited congressional franchise extension Duterte doused cold water to the press freedom argument by the opposition. Even if passed, Duterte will still need to sign it and that is where the rub will come in. The danger for Robredo here is for the Lopezes to see the light and put more value to their profit margin instead of democracy. A pliant approach will go a long way to protect their businesses, especially if assured of one.

There is so much anger among the elites and Robredo supporters about the military expansions China in the South China Seas. By continually expanding militarily, China exposed the U.S.’s inability to do anything to stop it. The closest opportunity America had was during a boat ramming incident in Philippine territory a year ago involving a Chinese paramilitary fishing boat. Americans made noises about treating it as an act of war but didn’t really do anything other than exercising Freedom of Navigation (FON) deployments in the area. It can’t trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty because a paramilitary fishing boat does not meet the United Nation’s definition of a man of war.

Robredo’s war crime gambit in the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Duterte has crumbled. She failed to recognize the nexus between the ICC and China. China will most likely exert influence to protect Duterte if ever it comes to that. The United States is not a signatory to the Roman Statute and therefore has no vote. Besides, a functioning court system in the Philippines is insurance that Duterte will not be prosecuted.

Many, including Robredo castigated Duterte for serving the termination notice to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Despite an initial brush-off, Duterte got a call from Trump, got his COVID-19 aid, and did not even acknowledge it. The VFA will stay but under Duterte’s terms. He is indeed a gambling man.

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