The Philippine president is determined to forge closer ties with China — but at what cost?
BY GREG RUSHFORD
OCTOBER 17, 2016
Since he took office on June 30, Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte — also known as “Duterte Harry” — has earned international notoriety for a harsh anti-drug campaign that has led to the extrajudicial killings of more than 3,600 alleged traffickers around the country. The crackdown has alarmed the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States. At one point Duterte called Barack Obama “a son of a whore,” later telling the U.S. president “to go to hell” after Washington dared to criticize the murders. Sooner or later, Duterte has vowed, he will “break up with America,” the Philippines’ longstanding treaty ally and security guarantor.
There’s one international power that doesn’t seem particularly bothered by Duterte’s excesses. “The Chinese side fully understands and firmly supports the Duterte administration’s policy that [prioritizes] the fight against drug crimes,” said Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua in a speech last month. He went on to express his satisfaction at the “friendly interactions’ between the two countries since the new president began his term, predicting that the sun “will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations.”
If anything, the ambassador may have understated the matter. This week Duterte is set to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where the two are planning to sign a range of high-level bilateral agreements that will dramatically boost trade and investment between the two countries. Nor is their new friendship restricted to business. The visit comes just days after Duterte declared an end to joint Philippine-American naval patrols in the strategically sensitive waters of the South China Sea, where China has been steadily expanding its presence despite rival claims by Manila and other countries. The 65-year alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines has never looked so fragile.The 65-year alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines has never looked so fragile.
So why the shift in policy? On one level, Duterte’s desire to seek friendship with the Chinese reflects a willingness to appease Beijing’s aggressive stance in the disputed waters. Chinese Coast Guard warships armed with machine guns and water cannons have harassed Philippine fishermen, preventing them from earning their livelihoods in their traditional fishing grounds in the South China Sea (90 percent of which China claims as its own). Chinese dredges have been deployed well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, where they have destroyed irreplaceable coral reefs to build airstrips and naval bases aimed at enhancing Chinese offensive power. China has also forcibly prevented Filipinos from developing valuable oil, gas, and mineral resources that they’ll need in the coming years to power their electricity grid. “I will not go to war” over such matters, Duterte has declared.
On July 12, just short of two weeks into Duterte’s presidential term, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China has been acting in violation of Beijing’s sworn obligations under international maritime law. The litigation was brought in 2013 by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino Jr., who sought to use the rule of law to rally international opinion to pressure the Chinese to respect Philippine sovereignty. Now Duterte appears to be signaling that he’s willing to overlook the tribunal’s findings if China is willing to do a deal.
There are various explanations for Duterte’s eagerness to seek a compromise. Some of those who know the president well suggest that the pivot is rooted in the left-of-center ideology he has professed in his past, which left him with a residual suspicion of the West (and Americans in particular). Duterte openly admires one of his former college professors, Jose Maria Sison — the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army. Others point out that Duterte, who has several times threatened to declare martial law, has praised authoritarian leaders like former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. And besides China’s President Xi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been wooing the Philippine president with suggestions of cheap financing for Russian attack helicopters.
Meanwhile, Duterte and his foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay, have been courting the support of business elites who favor closer relations with Beijing. In his career as a lawyer, Yasay represented the interests of Chinese-Filipino tycoons who have good connections in Beijing. Yasay, who brought no foreign policy experience to his position, has also been careful to speak respectfully of the Chinese — while telling an audience of Washington, D.C. insiders that Filipinos no longer want to be America’s “little brown brothers.”Filipinos no longer want to be America’s “little brown brothers.”
Among Yasay’s prominent clients has been Lucio Tan, one of the country’s richest men, who Duterte has said was one of the first to urge him to seek the presidency. While little-known outside Asia, billionaire Tan — who was born in China’s Fujian province and is considered on the mainland to be a “patriotic” Chinese — is one of the most controversial figures in Philippine political circles. He was one of the original so-called “Marcos cronies,” who became rich thanks to the tax breaks and other government subsidies granted in the 1970s by Ferdinand Marcos.
After Marcos was deposed in 1986, a series of successive Philippine prosecutors sought unsuccessfully to recover Tan’s allegedly ill-gained wealth. Today, he is chairman of Philippine Airlines, the country’s flagship carrier, and has extensive holdings in banking, mining, tobacco, beer, hotels and property development. He’s also made some major investments in China, which have clearly earned him the goodwill of Beijing. When Chinese presidents come to Manila, they always stay in one of Tan’s hotels.
Though there’s no evidence that Duterte is financially beholden to Tan — the president says he turned down the tycoon’s offer of cash and the use of aircraft during the campaign — they share a strong interest in closer ties with the Chinese. During his campaign, Duterte received an especially warm welcome from the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, of which Tan is an honorary chairman. Along with the Chinese ambassador, Tan was one of the first prominent visitors Duterte received after his election victory.
In his eagerness to establish close economic ties with Beijing, Duterte has also said he is looking to revive various Chinese-Philippine joint ventures that were envisioned a decade ago during the presidency of Gloria Arroyo. The most notable project on Arroyo’s watch involved a $329 million telecommunications contract with China’s state-owned ZTE Corp. But Arroyo’s hopes to forge closer economic ties with China were derailed by various allegations of pay-offs that involved ZTE, Arroyo herself, and members of her entourage. Authorities in Manila recently dropped graft charges against Arroyo and her former colleagues, and her four-year house arrest has been lifted. Duterte has insisted that he had nothing to do with those decisions, though he had publicly offered to pardon Arroyo, in any case.
While no corruption allegations have surfaced in the new Duterte administration, the concerns about the adverse consequences of doing business with China remain. As Philippine professor Aileen Baviera has observed, the ZTE deal “was an example of how Chinese wealth … can undermine already weak institutions and government norms in a recipient country.”
While some members of the Manila elite worry that Duterte’s campaign of extrajudicial killings threatens to corrode the hard-won rule of law, Filipino-Chinese businessmen are among the most vocal defenders of the president’s drug war.Filipino-Chinese businessmen are among the most vocal defenders of the president’s drug war. And a tycoon from mainland China, Huang Rulun, who first acquired his wealth while living in the Philippines, has pleased Duterte by volunteering to pay for a new internment camp for thousands of drug users who have surrendered to police rather than fall victim to the slaughter.
While Duterte is currently riding high in public opinion polls, signs of a backlash are already starting to emerge. A notable indicator came last week when respected elder statesman and ex-President Fidel Ramos — whom Duterte has said would be a special envoy to China — publically expressed deep concerns about where the new Philippine leader is headed. Ramos lamented that “Team Philippines” is losing, “and losing badly.” Also last week, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio even felt it necessary to remind Duterte that to surrender Philippine sovereign rights would be an “impeachable offense.”
Indeed, if Duterte continues on his current course — downplaying the legally binding decision of the Hague tribunal and watering down his own country’s territorial claims — his honeymoon with voters could end quickly. The Philippines remains one of the most pro-American countries in the world; in one recent survey, a whopping 92 percent of the population held positive attitudes towards the U.S. And some of the most pro-American Filipinos are to be found in the military, which looks to the American security relationship to counter Chinese bullying — which might help to explain why Duterte has been busily showering top officers with favors and cash.
By Greg Rushford
Last week marked some memorable history being made — and some key dates perhaps fraught with deeper historical significance than either Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte or China’s Xi Jinping would care to be reminded of.
On Oct. 17, Xinhua reported that the president of the Philippines — then enroute for an official state visit to China — had admitted he would not fight for his country. “There is no sense in going to war” to recover Philippine territory that Chinese forces have seized in the South China Sea, Rodrigo Roa Duterte had declared. “There is no sense fighting over a body of water.” Also on Oct. 17, Duterte told Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television that he wanted to hold war games with China — and no longer with the Philippines’ longstanding treaty ally, the United States. “I have given enough time for the Americans to play with the Filipino soldiers,” he said.
On Oct. 20, speaking in the Great Hall of the People, Duterte delivered on what he had promised would be the “defining moment of my presidency,” sticking the knife into the Americans. “In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States.” Duterte went on to say this: “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia.” America, he added, “has lost.”
Also on Oct. 20, a triumphant-looking President Xi delivered his part of the bilateral bargain. In return for the Philippine president’s willingness to look the other way regarding Chinese naval- and air bases in the South China Sea, Beijing would start delivering more than $13.5 billion of soft loans and an array Chinese-controlled joint development projects to fill Duterte’s begging bowl.
Professor Erwin Tiongson of Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and a man with a keen historical eye, helps put last week’s chronology in a fitting context. October 20, as Duterte was venting his scorn for Americans in Beijing, marks the 72nd anniversary of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s landing in Leyte. Five months later, a future President Rodrigo Roa Duterte would be born into freedom — on the island of Leyte.
The historical record is silent — and Duterte himself has not responded to a written invitation to clarify it — on how his parents, Vicente Duterte and Soledad Roa Duterte, might have celebrated when the Americans freed them from foreign aggression. We don’t know (yet) whether Vicente and Soledad were among the brave Filipino patriots who harassed Japanese forces on Leyte and passed valuable intelligence on to the U.S. Sixth Army — or whether they, like others, were collaborators. But we know what to call the son, who has admitted he is eager to look the other way in the face of foreign aggression, in return for money.
Also on Oct. 20, while Duterte was venting his spleen against Americans in the Great Hall of the People, the U.S. Embassy in Manila dispatched Col. Kevin Wolfla to Leyte. The decorated U.S. Army attaché spoke to an audience in the town of Palo that had gathered to mark the 1945 Leyte Gulf landing. “Our relationship with the Philippines is broad and our alliance is one of our most enduring and important relationships in the Asia-Pacific region,” Col. Wolfla (rightly) noted. “It is a cornerstone of stability for over 70 years.”
The Philippines News Agency reported that Leyte Gov. Dominico Petilla “repeatedly thanked the US for its role in the Philippines’ liberation and massive assistance of the US government after super typhoon Yolanda.” The governor’s mother, Palo Mayor Remedios Petilla, “assured that US officials will always be invited in future Leyte Gulf Landing celebrations,” the news report added.
Seventy two years after the landing that set the stage for the largest naval battle in history — and the liberation of the Philippines, Filipinos still mark the date with a MacArthur Landing Memorial National Park. And it turns out that President Duterte has a most personal reason to remember American sacrifices for his country. But for reasons that have yet to be explained, Rodrigo Duterte’s historical memories are shorter.
Duterte was born on Leyte on March 28, 1945. While his mother was giving birth, Japanese forces sunk an American submarine, the USS Trigger, which had been patrolling in Japanese waters. Eighty-nine Americans under the command of CDR David Rickart Connole lost their lives that day. The Trigger had already sunk “at least fifteen enemy vessels for a total of more than 85,000 tons of shipping,” according to the United States Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum, in Groton, Connecticut. Motor Machinist’s Mate First Class Constantine Guinness, one of the Trigger’s intrepid men, had captured the Trigger’s spirit with a poem: “I’m the Galloping Ghost of the Japanese Coast.”
The names of the Trigger’s crew are also remembered in the missing-in-action memorial in the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Duterte’s foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay — who has also been busy expressing his disdain for Americans these days — was living in Hawaii with his family when his old friend Duterte tapped him for the Department of Foreign Affairs. As I reported in a column published on ForeignPolicy.com on Oct. 17, Yasay has professional ties to Filipino-Chinese tycoons with high-level connections in Beijing.
Duterte has not responded to questions as to whether he has ever been to the American Cemetery in Manila. Tucked away on 152 peaceful green acres, the cemetery honors the memories of the 16,632 Americans and 570 brave Filipinos who are buried there — and whose lives will be eternally marked by their sacrifices to free the Philippines from foreign occupation. There is also a chapel and a memorial honoring 36,285 Americans, Filipinos and other members of the allied armed forces who were killed in action — including the eighty-nine Americans from the Trigger who died the day Duterte’s mother gave birth.
There are other dates worth contemplation as the Duterte presidency continues down its anti-American path. But one stands out.
On September 9, 1945, Japanese forces surrendered in China. President Xi Jinping and other senior members of the Politburo like to pretend that China’s armed forces threw out the Japanese. The chest thumpers in today’s Beijing are loath to acknowledge that Americans, Australians, British, New Zealanders, Canadians and others also had their hands in that victory, to understate the matter considerably.
The missing date in the chronology is the time that China helped another country secure its liberty, at the cost of considerable Chinese lives. That’s because such a historical event has yet to happen.
America’s Philippines Blunder
Failing U.S. trade policy exacerbates Manila’s doubts of Washington’s security promises.
By GREG RUSHFORD
July 28, 2016 12:46 p.m. ET
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday discussed the “full range” of economic and security issues with Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ newly elected president. The visit comes in the wake of The Hague’s July 12 ruling that Chinese actions in the South China Sea violate Philippine rights.
Mr. Kerry’s diplomatic mission was to assure Mr. Duterte that Manila can count on Washington’s mutual-defense promises. But there are also Mr. Duterte’s doubts that the U.S. can support the Philippine trade and economy.
When Mr. Duterte was sworn in to office on June 30, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman announced a new trade policy that upends important economic growth plans in the Philippines. It threatens to wipe out an estimated $100 million annual boost to Philippine exports of travel goods such as luxury handbags, wallets and backpacks. It also complicates Philippine investment aspirations to create some 75,000 travel-goods-related jobs in the next five years.
At first glance, Mr. Froman’s announcement gives no hint of the economic controversy it has sparked. He says that President Obama wants to make “a powerful contribution to lifting people out of poverty and supporting growth in some of the poorest countries in the world, while also reducing costs to American consumers and businesses.” The policy benefits 43 least-developed beneficiary countries, such as Cambodia and Haiti, and 38 African nations. Pursuant to the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, these countries will no longer have to pay stiff tariffs of up to 20% on handbags, wallets and other travel goods exported to the U.S.
The U.S. decision to give preferential treatment to the industry’s small players, while blindsiding the most competitive producers, is perplexing. Cambodia, for instance, holds a modest 0.4% of the U.S. market, producing mostly backpacks. Africa’s total travel-goods exports to the U.S. amount to roughly one hundredth of one percent market share. As a result, the policy gives just two countries—China and Vietnam—a combined 90% share of the $5 billion U.S. travel-goods market.
It is unlikely that preferential treatment will prompt least-developed countries to boost their exports. Even with 15 years of duty-free access to U.S. clothing markets under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, 40 African countries combined to export less than 1%, or $1 billion, of garments each year to the U.S. The Philippines alone exceeds Africa in clothing exports by more than $100 million.
Diplomats from other countries and industry giants in the U.S., such as Coach, Columbia Sportswear and Kate Spade, have written to Mr. Froman asking for an explanation. On Wednesday 14 members of U.S. Congress, including 10 from the powerful Ways and Means Committee that has jurisdiction over trade, also issued a strong letter to the U.S. trade chief. But Mr. Froman has yet to offer any economic rationale for the decision, nor is there any evidence on the public record to support it.
Developing countries with larger market shares of the travel-goods industry, such as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, must now reconsider their plans to expand their investments. Major U.S. players such as Coach and Michael Kors, which looked to U.S. trade officials to provide financial incentives to shift production away from China, will now put those investment plans on hold. China is thus poised to keep its 85% share of the U.S. travel-goods market.
Vietnam, as a communist country, is not eligible for the GSP preferences. But in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the U.S. agreed to give the Vietnamese—who now hold a 5% market share—the same duty-free treatment withheld from GSP-eligible countries. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif thought he had received assurances directly from President Obama last year that U.S. trade officials understood the “importance” of increasing enhanced market access for Pakistan’s GSP-covered exports. Diplomats I have spoken to chafe at the unfairness.
Viewed through the Philippine lens, the failure to connect economic cooperation with the security aspect of Obama’s pivot to Asia is glaring. Cambodia, apparently thanks to financial inducements from Beijing, has been the spoiler whenever the Philippines has sought solidarity from its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in standing up to China in the South China Sea.
Asked repeatedly for his side of the story, Mr. Froman asserted through a spokesman that “travel goods are a product particularly well-suited to be produced in least-developed countries.” He declined to explain further.
While the broader security relationship will survive, it is worth noting that in international economic diplomacy, like in personal relationships, unnecessary smaller slights erode trust. With the Chinese watching on the sidelines and eager to buy their way out of their South China Sea mess, this is not a wise time to rub the volatile new Philippine leader the wrong way.
Mr. Rushford edits an online journal that specializes in international economic diplomacy.
One President Away From Disaster
Why the Philippine election threatens to break an economic winning streak.
BY GREG RUSHFORD APRIL 29, 2016
The Philippines offers one of the world’s most heartening economic success stories. Once the “sick man” of Southeast Asia, the country has recently become one of the fastest-growing economies in the region. Over the past six years its annual GDP growth rate has been above six percent.
The credit belongs to President Benigno Aquino.The credit belongs to President Benigno Aquino. Elected in 2010, Aquino promised an honest government, staffed by competent administrators who would start freeing the economy from the shackles of corruption and kleptocracy. He has largely kept his promise: he has awarded public contracts honestly, held corrupt officials accountable, and removed obstacles to much-needed foreign investments. But now Aquinio’s six-year term is nearly over, and the constitution does not allow him to run for president again. As a result, on May 9, voters will head to the polls, when they will pick their new chief executive from a field of five candidates.
The bad news is that none of the frontrunners appears likely to continue Aquino’s reforms, which remain fragile and subject to reversal. In fact, the whole group is downright disturbing — a feeling that will probably be familiar to anyone who has been following the U.S. presidential race.
The frontrunner is a misogynist whose attitude on women makes Donald Trump look like a choir boy, and who has pledged to drown criminals in Manila Bay. Another is dodging criminal investigations that allege money laundering, kickbacks, and bid rigging. Still another is a political neophyte who might be a welcome fresh face, if only she were not backed by some of the worst of the old-style cronies whose main contribution to their country has been to impoverish it. Admittedly, there is one candidate who is widely respected for his personal honesty and wealth of high-level government experience — but he has also earned a reputation for being unwilling to make tough decisions. (The fifth aspirant, Miriam Defensor Santiago, who is polling in the single digits, is not considered a serious contender due to her bout with lung cancer.)
“If this looks like a circus, it’s because it really is,” prominent investigative journalist Marites Vitug told me. In sum, after the new president is sworn in this July, the bad old days, when corrupt politicians were (disastrously) in charge of the economy, could soon come back.
If that happens, the timing couldn’t be worse. The Philippines’ recent progress in becoming a more attractive place to invest has only thrown into sharp relief how much more needs to be done.The Philippines’ recent progress in becoming a more attractive place to invest has only thrown into sharp relief how much more needs to be done. For starters, a whole series of key sectors — ports, shipping, energy, logistics, mining, finance, telecommunications, agriculture, and food — are, one way or another, closed to meaningful competition. To sustain genuine economic growth, the next president will have to take on and break up an array of entrenched cartels, monopolies and duopolies. President Aquino has made a start, but unless these and other structural problems are addressed head-on, the country’s growth is almost sure to slow.
Yet the candidates seem to have other priorities on their minds. The rule of law, for example, is notoriously weak in the Philippines — problems range from poor respect for property rights to a judicial system in desperate need of reform. So it says a lot that the frontrunner is 71-year old Rodrigo Duterte, who for more than two decades has been mayor of the city of Davao on the southern island of Mindanao. He’s known as Duterte Harry, after the Clint Eastwood movie character. That’s because, once a playground for violent criminals, Davao has become perhaps the Philippines’ safest city. The credit for that is widely attributed to death squads, widely viewed to be connected to the mayor, that have taken out an estimated 1,000 street criminals with no semblance of a fair trial.
Whatever the truth, Duterte cultivates his tough-guy image.Whatever the truth, Duterte cultivates his tough-guy image. “If you do not know how to kill people and you’re afraid to die, that’s the problem, you cannot be a president,” he has declared.
If he becomes president, Duterte promises to throw the bodies of thousands of drug dealers into the ocean. “The fish in Manila Bay will get fat,” he boasts. He has also threatened to dissolve the congress and impose martial law as “an extreme option” if corrupt politicians get in his way. Onlookers may cringe, but many Filipino voters, fed up with corruption, applaud.
Duterte’s foul mouth tends to get him in trouble. He has apologized for cussing out Pope Francis in anger after getting stuck in a massive traffic jam during last year’s papal visit to Manila. But he’s never expressed sincere regret for some of his astonishing statements about women. Recently, Duterte recalled a case where an Australian missionary had been gang-raped and killed in Davao in 1989. The rape was regrettable, he said — but somewhat understandable given how “beautiful” the victim was. She was so attractive, Duterte joked, that “the mayor” — meaning himself — “should have been first.” When his insensitivity sparked a flurry of international headlines, Duterte basically shrugged, noting that “was how men talk.”
If elected, the first “big fish” to go to jail, Duterte promises, will be one of his presidential rivals. “I have killed criminals,” the mayor has declared. “But Binay steals from the poor.”
The reference was to current Vice President Jejomar Binay, 73, the former mayor of Makati City, the Philippines’ financial center, who at times has also led the polls. Binay, who ran Makati’s political machine for 21 years, has been accused of amassing unexplained wealth — accusations he has always brushed off as unsubstantiated and politically motivated.
Binay rose from humble beginnings, working his way through law school and into politics, and eventually creating one of the country’s most powerful dynasties. One of his daughters is a senator, another a congresswoman. His son served for a time as mayor of Makati until being dismissed last year to face allegations of corruption.
Meanwhile, a senate subcommittee has investigated allegations that Binay himself indulged in bid rigging during his stint at mayor. The Philippines Anti-Money Laundering Council, an enforcement arm of the central bank, obtained a court order last year freezing more than 200 bank accounts allegedly used for money laundering by Binay and his associates. (His reply was that “allegations are not evidence.”)
Binay has cultivated a base among his poor compatriots.Binay has cultivated a base among his poor compatriots. As mayor of Makati, he generously doled out free scholarships and medical care to his grateful constituents. A video that went viral in Manila showed him handing out what appeared to be small peso bills to a line of grateful constituents — just Christmas presents for the downtrodden, his operatives bragged (without explaining exactly where the money had come from). Binay told one audience last year that poverty, not corruption, would be the number one “moral problem” he would address as president. This, needless to say, offers little hope that he would prove effective at fighting graft, often cited by Filipinos as one of their country’s most pressing problems.
Binay has raised eyebrows by being the only presidential candidate to suggest that, if the price were right, he might agree to let China buy its way out of its maritime disputes with the Philippines in the South China Sea. Chinese naval forces have seized control of some 80 percent of the Philippines’ internationally recognized exclusive economic zone, which includes valuable oil and gas reserves and traditional fishing grounds. To his credit, President Aquino has stood up to the intimidation, even embarrassing Beijing by filing an international legal challenge in The Hague. Chinese officials have made no secret of their hopes to settle the dispute by contributing money for “joint development” projects — if the Philippines will accept that China is entitled to keep control of lucrative resources that rightfully belong to the Philippines. An accommodating President Binay could be just what Chinese officials have been hoping for.
Senator Grace Poe, the adopted daughter of popular movie stars, is the third leading presidential aspirant. At 47, Poe is still considered a neophyte, having only been in the senate for three years. But she does have a team that includes several respected economic advisers who understand that the Philippines will never enjoy sustainable growth without addressing the many structural weaknesses that have held the country back for so long.
Yet Poe, too, comes with baggage that casts doubt on her capacity to sort out her country’s economic problems. Above all, she has close ties to the bad old crowd that created many of the problems that plague the Philippines today. One of her strongest political backers is former President Joseph Estrada, a boozer and womanizer who was hounded out of office in 2001 and convicted of corruption. (He has certainly demonstrated political resiliency, having been elected Manila’s current mayor in 2013.) Estrada is one of Poe’s godfathers, a relationship that has real meaning in the Philippines.
Even more worrisome, another godfather, Danding Cojuangco, is pushing hard for Poe’s election. Cojuangco, one of the country’s most notorious crony capitalists, became one of the Philippines’ richest men (and perhaps the richest) during the old Marcos dictatorship. He was on the plane when Ferdinand Marcos fled the country for Hawaii in 1986. Now chairman of the giant San Miguel conglomerate, Cojuangco has made his corporate aircraft available to fly Poe around the campaign trail.
San Miguel beer holds some 90 percent of the Philippine beer market, and the conglomerate’s revenues are estimated at some 5 percent of the country’s GDP. Besides beer, San Miguel is into chickens, hot dogs, oil refining, insurance, property developments, banks, power plants, and more. If investigators from the new Philippine Competition Commission start asking questions about undue concentration of economic power, where would a President Grace Poe stand?
The good news about Mar Roxas — a viable candidate, although never a frontrunner — is that he’s one of the rare Philippine politicians who has never been tainted with allegations of malfeasance. And although just a couple weeks short of 59, he’s had a wealth of high-level experience: senator, trade secretary, energy secretary, interior, and transportation. But he also has a reputation as a relatively weak administrator. During his stint as transportation secretary, for example, he proved unable to push through plans for a long-overdue international airport project.
Happily, the picture isn’t completely bleak. The Philippines still boasts inherent strengths that could compensate for the possibility of a severe leadership deficit following the presidential election. The country has a high literacy rate and a resourceful and talented workforce. And the country’s 100 million people are in a demographic sweet spot — their average age is in the 20s, making for a youthful, energetic population that can drive consumption and growth.
All this offers at least a faint hope that present growth trends will continue no matter who wins on May 9. Even so, pessimists are entirely entitled to ask why, despite its virtues, the Philippines always seems to be just one president away from disaster.