Duterte, Year 3
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 13, 2018 - 12:00am

There will be no rambling digressions from the prepared State of the Nation Address (SONA) to be delivered by President Duterte later this month.

Or at least this was the assurance given by Malacañang officials to those worried that Duterte, after reading the prepared speech that normally takes nearly an hour to deliver, won’t be able to resist rambling on for another hour or two, giving voice as usual to his trademark free-association stream of thought on anything and everything.

Within that rambling portion he could pick more unnecessary fights – although how high can he still go after picking a fight with God? The talk is that several of his former favorite punching bags are elated that he has moved on to higher things, although their wounds will take time to heal.

Administration officials may say that Duterte is not interested in healing or mending fences with anyone except his Maker, but he may be forced to, if only for the sake of national interest.

Duterte will be delivering his third SONA with the economy, by his own description (and to the horror of his economic team) “in the doldrums.” Consumer prices have risen at the fastest rate in five years, and people blame his tax reform package – specifically, the ill-advised hefty excise tax on fuel and energy.

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At the start of Duterte’s Year 3, investors are threatening to take their money and jobs elsewhere, notably Vietnam, thanks to knee-jerk Philippine government policies on work contracting, politically driven wage decisions, and the upcoming second phase of tax reforms. These are on top of persistent problems such as high power costs, inadequate infrastructure, red tape and corruption.

The Chinese, being astute businessmen, can be expected to consider the same factors in making investment decisions. Even after two years of China-friendly Duterte, the Philippines’ top three sources of foreign direct investments remain the United States, Japan and the European Union.

The EU must be assessed as a grouping because Duterte’s tirades are directed not at its individual member states but at the entire bloc, and the President’s remarks affect business sentiment within the grouping.

The Philippines continues to benefit from a preferential trade scheme with the EU – the only ASEAN country to enjoy this privilege. But European officials have told me that there is increasing concern among private investors over the animosity often publicly expressed by Duterte toward the EU.

When the final figures for this year come in, government officials will have to admit that tourism also took a hit from the arbitrary way that Boracay was shut down. While few people would disagree with the need to clean up and decongest the world-famous but overdeveloped travel destination, there are ways of doing this with minimal inconvenience to tourists and law-abiding businessmen.

Europeans are big travelers and many are big spenders. They account for much of those enviable tourist arrival figures for Southeast Asia’s top travel destinations Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, with Vietnam also sprinting toward the front of the pack. We have missed out on that huge tourism market due to many factors, among them the lack of direct flights, weak tourism infrastructure and marketing, and peace and order issues. Europeans tell me repeat visits to the Philippines are depressingly low compared to the figures in Thailand and even Vietnam.

The Chinese could take up the slack, especially if told by their government. At the height of the dispute over the maritime arbitration case, there were messages advising the Chinese that buying mangoes from Thailand rather than the Philippines would be a patriotic thing to do.

But a lot of uncertainty persists in this issue, and Chinese mainlanders can fear that they may be unwelcome in the Philippines. Friendly bilateral ties are heavily dependent on Duterte himself, and he can’t make even his security forces go along with his pivot to Beijing.

Yesterday, streamers popped up in several areas in Metro Manila, with the images spread on social media, repeating Duterte’s declaration that the Philippines is a province of China. Many people considered it a protest against Duterte’s pro-China policy.

Malacañang officials may shrug off such expressions of protest. But the issue is an additional source of discontent that should worry a president whose survey ratings are falling steadily.

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Duterte entered his third year with the lowest satisfaction ratings ever, with consumer prices high and the peso at its lowest in years, and public impatience setting in over the pace of his much touted Build Build Build infrastructure program.

These are mostly gut issues that cannot be addressed through the simplistic approach of killing people.

His anti-tambay campaign is alienating his D and E constituencies, while his uncalled for perorations against God have alienated most everyone.

With midterm elections – a referendum on his presidency – approaching, deadly attacks on mayors and vice mayors also threaten to erode grassroots political support for his candidates.

His officials insist that the attacks are not linked and his narco list has nothing to do with the murders. But his “foot-in-mouth disease” got him in trouble on this issue, after he said Tanauan mayor Antonio Halili, slain by a gunman who seemed like a professional sniper, was into drugs and probably got what he deserved.

Earlier this week Duterte blamed losers in the 2016 race, the Liberal Party and officials of the previous administration for sowing chaos and fomenting destabilization.

In fact this is one of the weakest periods for the political opposition, especially in the House of Representatives. Many of the issues shaking this administration are due to its own policies – the fuel tax, abuses in the anti-crime drive, the recycling of sacked officials – aggravated by Duterte’s irrepressible mouth.

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His officials must be praying that he will stick to the plan of avoiding digressions from the prepared SONA. But with this President, nothing is certain.

The country seems to be lurching from one issue to the next. In recent weeks, with the SONA approaching, one question has increasingly popped up in my conversations with Filipinos and foreigners alike: Where is the country going?

It’s a measure of these confusing times that no one seems to have a clear answer.

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