Shifting political dynamics amid COVID-19 crisis

Paco A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute

A few months ago it would have been crazy to think that a single virus could empty EDSA of cars, shutdown shopping malls, and force us to stay home (and maroon foreign tourist on our deserted beaches). Yet here we are, and not only has the coronavirus managed to do all that, believe it or not, it seems to have also started to change the tone of Philippine politics.

Just last week, President Rodrigo Duterte thanked business leaders for their help in combating the spread of the coronavirus. He even went as far as issuing a rare but admirable contrite to the Ayala group and Metro Pacific’s (MPIC) Manny V. Pangilinan.

Talk about a complete 180 from the populist strongman’s usual anti-elitist rhetoric that he has echoed since the beginning of his presidency in 2016.

Imagine, it was just last year that Duterte threatened to cancel the water contracts of the Ayala’s Manila Water and MVP’s Maynilad. Not only that, he also threatened a military takeover of their operations and even jailtime for the companies’ bosses after the government lost its arbitration case.

It was also last year that Duterte sent his top lawyer, Solicitor General Jose Calida, to petition the Supreme Court to cancel the franchise of Lopez-run ABS-CBN, the nation’s largest broadcast network, while his allies in the House of Representatives sat on legislation calling for its renewal. And all this because of unaired campaign ads back in 2016, a grudge we now know the president is clearly not yet over.

It was these non-stop attacks on big business that helped boost his popularity with the disgruntled masses throughout the entirety of 2019. In Pulse Asia’s survey for the fourth quarter of 2019, Duterte still enjoyed an 87% approval rating, despite already being in his fourth year in office.

These attacks would have probably continued in 2020 had a global pandemic not come along.

However, when the virus hit, the Philippine government found itself flatfooted, unable to cobble together a decent response program. Despite being granted emergency powers to re-allocate government funds to provide low-income families with aide during the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the government’s social amelioration program was slow to roll out, with only 7.3 million out of the targeted 18 million low-income families receiving government aide after the first month.

Ironically, it was the conglomerates that Duterte had vilified that stepped up to try and fill in the gaps left by the government’s slow response.

For instance, Ayala Corp., MPIC and ABS-CBN were among the business groups that organized Project Ugnayan, an initiative that raised P1.7 billion to provide grocery vouchers to over 1.5 million vulnerable families in Metro Manila. And even as profits were drying up, several companies still committed to continue paying their employees and advance bonuses, that’s easily thousands of breadwinners who don’t have to worry about losing income during this time of uncertainty.

It seems that all this has got Duterte thinking twice about his harsh “anti-oligarch” rhetoric and may even have him shifting from a closed fist to an open hand.

For instance, the Department of Health recently launched the public-private Taskforce T3 (Test, Trace, and Treat). With the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Philippine Red Cross, Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation, and private sector healthcare providers such as the Ayala Group’s AC Health, and the MPIC Hospital Group all participating, the taskforce aims to boost the government’s testing capacity from its current 5,000 tests a day to its target of 30,000 test per day by the end of May.

Increasing the country’s testing capacity is a critical step to assessing the effectiveness of its response measures and a key indicator for lifting the ECQ.

The government’s economist and policymakers are also working closely with business groups to come up with a stimulus package that will help the country recover from the economic impact of the coronavirus.

The current proposed package, which is designed to help SMEs and create jobs, is expected to inject P1.3 trillion into the economy and already has the backing of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the country’s largest business group.

The Duterte administration will also have to rethink how it will fund its ambitious “Build, Build, Build” program. With our usual foreign partners and funders now facing bad economic news in the home front, the government need to ween itself away from foreign sponsors and rely on homegrown Filipino businesses to invest in its infrastructure programs.

Oh how the coronavirus has changed the tone of Philippine politics. In fact with the olive branch contritely offered by the president who has recognized the bona fides of the Ayala Corp. and of MPIC, for all we know–as many hope—it could be extended to the Lopez’s and ABS-CBN as well.

It took a global pandemic to force the Duterte administration to start treating the business community as credible and reliable partners in nation building. When this pandemic is behind us, we have to make sure that these lessons are not unlearned.

After all, the worst thing we can do is go back to the exact same way it was before, but expect different results when the next crisis inevitably comes around.




This article was originally published in Image Source: Presidential Photo/King Rodriguez.

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