Grappling and groping

By Artchil B. Fernandez

The mettle of Bongbong Marcos’ (BBM) leadership is being put to a severe test as the country struggles to weather the current economic crisis battering the nation and as he confronts the numerous challenges of governance.

On the economic front, inflation has further risen to 6.4 percent from 6.1 percent last month.  Du30 left him with a huge national debt of Php12.79 trillion. The Philippine peso has plummeted to a new 18-year low, reaching 56.37 to a US dollar last July 12, 2022, the weakest since November 5, 2004. Today, the value of the peso vis-à-vis the US dollar straddles from 55 to 56.

There is more bad news for BBM on the economic front this week. Poverty incidence rose to 18.1 percent in 2021 from 16.17 percent in the last 2018 survey the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported. This translates to 19.99 million Filipinos who are currently poor. From the data, there are 3.5 million poor families now, higher than the 3 million poor families in 2018.

It is not only high prices of goods and services that Filipinos are coping with at present.  Shortages of some items are beginning to manifest in the market. White onions are hard to find. Hamburger chain Burger King Philippines publicly complained that “our onions are a bit hard to come by these days.” The company said that its operation is affected by the shortage of onions.

Sugar is another item that is running out. In a rare statement, three big soft drink manufacturers confirmed the shortage of premium refined sugar. “We are working closely with other stakeholders of the industry and the government to address the situation,” Coca-Cola, RC Cola, and Pepsi Cola said in a joint statement. People in the Visayas and Mindanao noticed a dwindling supply of soft drinks in their areas.

How does BBM fare so far in confronting the economic crisis as well as in handling other areas of national leadership?

Filipinos have not heard any pronouncements from BBM on how he will manage inflation, tackle the national debt, how to deal with peso devaluation, or how to reduce poverty incidence. As agriculture chief, he has not said anything about the shortage of onions or sugar or how to bring down the price of rice – a major campaign promise.

Almost two months in office and BBM is still grappling and groping in the dark about how to lead the nation and manage its affairs. The mess in the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) over the planned importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar is a clear indicator of this.

Recently the agency’s board passed Sugar Order (SO) No. 4 allowing an additional sugar import program. The said order was deemed illegal since it was not approved by BBM who as secretary of agriculture is SRA chair. This incident raised many questions and placed a question mark on BBM’s leadership and character.

How can the entire board act on something without the expressed approval or worst knowledge of BBM? What prompted them to do it? Is BBM really clueless as projected?

If the entire SRA board has the audacity to do things behind BBM’s back, it speaks volumes of how his leadership is being regarded by his underlings. If he is not naïve about the action, then it implies he is complicit with their act but later sought to save himself by declaring it “illegal.” It is a sign of an insidious character. Resignations of SRA board members only whetted the curiosity of a skeptical public.

Then there is the issue of BBM’s veto spree. Previous Congress passed forty-six bills.  BBM vetoed five of them and allowed the forty-one to lapse into law. Why did BBM refuse to sign the bills into law and instead allow them to lapse? If he agrees with the bills, signing them into law is an affirmation of his position. Allowing them to lapse is a stale response, a sign of vacillation, or worst, a way to wiggle out of a compromising situation. Was he afraid to offend someone or something? Nevertheless, it shows a weak, fickle leadership, or one that has no grasp of the situation and the issues involved.

Intriguingly there is something odd with what BBM allowed to lapse and vetoed among the bills. BBM vetoed the bill expanding Davao Light’s franchise while he allowed to lapse into law the House Bill (HB) No. 10306 expanding MORE Power franchise into several towns in Iloilo province. In vetoing Davao Light’s franchise expansion BBM said “all existing franchises shall be allowed to their full term.” Yet, by allowing MORE to expand to ILECO I, II & III areas, BBM contradicts himself.  Why he did not respect the ILECO franchises and allow them to full term?

Davao Light is owned by the Aboitiz family while MORE is owned by Enrique Razon.  Does this indicate the Aboitiz family is out and Razon is in BBM’s ambit? The Aboitiz family is proximate to the Marcoses, so what gives? Or is it the closeness of the Aboitiz family to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) that sealed their fate?

Whatever is the answer, BBM is still grappling and groping how to deal with his fellow oligarchs. What signal is he sending with this decision to the various power blocs? Has he chosen his favorite bloc of the ruling elite or is he still in the process of weeding out his choices?  It seems the political settlement among the oligarchs is far from complete.

When it comes to problems that directly affect the people like the economic crisis, BBM appears ambivalent and even apathetic. His silence on the crisis speaks for itself. But, he can come up with a decision when it comes to the franchises of the top one percent of the population. It is quite clear the “Golden Age” is coming to the oligarchs but to ordinary Filipinos, it is a prolonged “Dark Age.” Good luck to all!