By Al Labita
As in past years, 2013 was more of the same—pervasive corruption, inept leadership and widening rich-poor gap. With the dawning of 2014, the same age-old old issues are likely to rear their ugly heads again, but more intense and complex this time in the face of uncertainties, domestically and globally. In the local front, the prognosis is that politics will be bannered by a new wave of money-tainted scandals, given how rapacious politicians have become as exemplified by President Aquino’s moniker–the country’s “pork barrel king.”
Despite its gains as one Asia’s fastest growing, the country’s economy will lose steam as it succumbs to the onslaught of calamity-driven inflationary pressures. One key concern is the estimated P360.8 billion cost to rebuild the typhoon-ravaged Central Visayas region. By any count, that’s roughly equivalent to almost 40 percent of the P2.3 trillion government budget for 2014 and this begs the question of where to source the funds.
Most likely, the scandal-rocked government will be hard put raising the money in that its coffers had been raided without letup, ironically by Aquino himself and his allies in what has shaped up as the biggest robbery in decades. With President Aquino’s grip on power loosened by the “pork” scam, a realignment of alliances is seen to make a dent on his much-vaunted high popularity rating.
Some dyed-in-the-wool loyalists in the ruling Liberal Party are expected to break ranks in the run-up to the 2016 presidential race and as the opposition gains momentum as an emerging alternative in the post-Aquino era. Fresh destabilization threats are likely to emerge, particularly from the military on the premise that under the Constitution, it is the “protector of the people.”
Frustrations over Aquino’s perceived weak and graft-laden leadership sparked not a few Army generals to ask for his resignation, a clear sign of waning support from among the men in uniform. That call, which has fueled talks that a power grab is in the offing, is expected to reverberate anew this year as Aquino grapples with a spate of crisis undermining his “matuwid na daan” platform of governance. Aquino’s yielding to the separatist demand of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for a territory in predominantly Christian-populated Mindanao also raised tensions among soldiers who had shed blood fighting to keep the republic intact.
Though still subject to a referendum, the newly signed deal has nonetheless fanned fears of a resurgence of a bloody ethnic conflict in the resource-rich island region. Derisively branded by critics as a sellout of national patrimony, Aquino’s capitulation was literally under the barrel of gun by a group classified by the US state department as terrorist.
This early, some Christian communities in Mindanao have opposed giving away a piece of their land to the MILF, a stance seen to derail Aquino’s Malaysian-brokered peace process with the secessionists. Aquino’s skewed policy in Mindanao may be viewed by last October’s bloody siege in Zamboanga city mounted by the mainstream Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari. Misuari, formerly a political science professor at state-run University of the Philippines, had reason to gripe —he was sidetracked by the Aquino government’s biased and selective peace process.
Like the MNLF, the communist-led New People’s Army is also in the same predicament, slamming Aquino for breaching a promise he made in 2010 presidential elections that he would forge peace with the rebel group. With less than three years left of Aquino’s tumultuous six-year mandate, time is practically running out for any peace pact to materialize even as a reign of terror prevails in the countryside.
The running tiff with China over conflicting territorial claims to the potentially resource-rich west Philippine Sea has put to a litmus test the Aquino government’s maturity in foreign diplomacy. While the Philippines has raised the ticklish issue before the United Nations (UN) for mediation, China has refused to yield in a display of arrogance being the world’s second largest economy.
Beijing’s intransigence has raised questions whether any UN decision to resolve the maritime row can be enforced or not amid China’s flexing its military muscle in the disputed maritime domain.
Despite Washington’s warnings, China has continued to assert its sovereign claims to the west Philippine Sea, fueling risks of an armed confrontation with the Philippines. The Manila-Beijing impasse comes at a time the United States plans to firm up its military presence in the Philippines as part of its “pivot policy” to curb China’s growing military and political clout. Bilateral talks had been going on, but bogged down by Manila’s insistence to have access to the military installations the US will put up to house an expected surge in the number of American troops and armaments.
But the US has thumbed down the Aquino government’s request, giving rise to speculations that the Americans are resurrecting their military bases in Subic and Clark, once their biggest in Asia. Talk of the return of the US bases, closed down in 1991 after Manila rejected renewal of the lease agreements, has stoked nationalist sentiments, especially among leftist groups. How the Aquino government will balance its need for American military presence vis-a-vis China’s threat with domestic concerns is a strategic dilemma seen to dominate Aquino’s foreign policy this year.
As the Aquino government tackles pressing local issues, it can’t turn a blind eye to what’s happening in the global area which certainly has an immense impact on the Philippines. The US economy, the world’s largest, has showed signs of bouncing back from its crippling budgetary woes that led to the Obama government’s shutdown in October.
Amid cheers from US-dependent developing economies, including the Philippines, the US recovery may be short-lived in what could be a repeat of its typical boom-and-bust cycle.
Such pessimism is anchored on the unstable supply and price of oil in the world market sparked by renewed signs of the pro-democracy Arab Spring threatening to topple unpopular governments in the Middle East, the world’s biggest supplier of oil.
As Filipinos plod on in ushering in the New Year, their much-vaunted resilience may yet spell the difference between hope and despair amid trying times.