The authentic opposition’s Counter-SONA has been institutionalized like the President’s SONA. As its appellation suggests, it is a rebuttal to the President’s SONA. It presents to the people the unalloyed state of the nation, devoid of aggrandizement, hyperbole, and pretense. It is a critique of the President’s declarations, misdeclarations and non-declarations.
STATE OF THE ECONOMY
Past presidents in their final SONAs invariably underscored the improvement of the economy, even its robust state. Now, even a cursory look at the economy reveals its precariousness. Obviously, President Duterte did not confirm this. However, the following negative indicators show what ails the economy:
Decelerating Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Even before the pandemic, the GDP was steadily falling from 7.1 percent in 2016 to 6.9 percent in 2017, 6.3 percent in 2018, and 6.1 percent in 2019. The GDP plummeted to negative 9.5 percent in 2020, the lowest ever including the Marcos years.
For the economy to be brought back to the 2019 level, it must grow by at least 10.5 percent this year. Government economic managers themselves target a growth of only 6 to 7 percent. The IMF downgraded its forecast from 6.9 to 5.4 percent. The ADB forecasts a lower growth at 4.5 percent.
Runaway unemployment. The all-time highest unemployment rate was at 17.7 percent in April 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. A record 7.3 million Filipinos were jobless. The annual unemployment rate improved to 10.3 percent in 2020, but still higher than 5.1 percent in 2019.
The government has tried to help households with its cash assistance program. But aside from the reported irregularities and delays in cash distribution, the amount of the cash assistance was too modest to approximate adequate relief. Besides, the policy of dole outs is unsound in the long run.
Increasing poverty and hunger. The World Bank estimates poverty incidence to be 19.8 percent in 2020 and projects 18.7 percent in 2021. NEDA approximates poverty incidence in 2021 from 15.5 to 17.5 percent.
The June 2021 SWS survey showed that 48 percent of families considered themselves poor, with even higher results in Visayas and Mindanao. The hunger surveys of SWS are more revealing where 16.8 percent of those surveyed confessed they have experienced hunger at least once in the past three months. The worst result was in Mindanao at 20.7 percent.
The pre-pandemic figures were doubled in the pandemic months. There were roughly two million more hungry Filipino families in 2020 than in 2019, the same figure estimated by the World Bank.
Galloping inflation. In the first quarter of 2021, the inflation rate was 4.5 percent, compared to only 2.6 percent for the whole of 2020. It overshot the Bangko Sentral’s self-imposed upper limit of 4.0 percent. It is worrisome that inflation rates for essential goods were even higher than the overall high of 4.5 percent. Food inflation was 6.6 percent. Vegetable inflation was 15.5 percent and meat inflation was 19.6 percent.
Ballooning national debt. A disconcerting area is the size of the national debt. From P5.948 trillion in June 2016, the last month of the Aquino administration, the national debt rose to P7.731 trillion in 2019 and to P9.795 trillion in 2020. In one year, the national debt increased by more than P2 trillion. And in May 2021, the national debt stood at P11.071 trillion.
The national debt is projected to hit P12 trillion this year, an increase by P6.052 trillion from the P5.948 trillion recorded in June 2016 just before President Duterte assumed office. This increase during the Duterte administration would be greater than the national debt accumulated from the Marcos to the Cory Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo, and Noynoy Aquino administrations altogether.
While the imperative to fund our Covid response largely explains the bloating of the national debt, we must realize that the country may be heading in the direction of another crisis - a debt crisis. The gargantuan size of the debt is dwarfed by the magnitude of debt service which will weigh down our children and future generations.
In 2020, debt service payments amounted to P962 billion, or almost P1 trillion. As early as the first quarter of 2021 alone, we have already paid P522 billion. Our debt service payments are expected to be over P1 trillion annually.
Problematic Covic-19 loans. A closer look at COVID loans is called for inasmuch as they chiefly account for the ballooning of the national debt since 2020.
Significantly, Finance Secretary Dominguez said the country plans to take out P3.03 trillion loans in 2021. This would aggravate the 2021 debt-to-GDP ratio which was already 60.4 percent in March 2021.
Given the inadequacy and obscurity of some Covid funding data, we call on the government to make a full accounting of the sources and uses of Covid funds, which President Duterte did not address in his SONA, particularly the delayed vaccination program.
As expected, President Duterte blamed the pandemic – which he said “stole everything” - for the sluggish performance of the economy. While he is partly correct, he overlooked that:
The GDP growth has decelerated since his incumbency from 7.1 percent in 2016 to 6.1 percent in 2019, before the pandemic.
While the Asia-Pacific region was hit with equal ferocity by the pandemic, the other countries weathered the contagion admirably, but the Philippines rather feebly.
He had a “medical populist” approach to the pandemic, like America’s Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and India’s Narendra Modi. He belittled the virus as a joke; downplayed the public health crisis; relied on a militaristic approach to the contagion, consequently preventing scientists and medical professionals from taking the lead; and touted his own bizarre solutions to the problem.
STATE OF EDUCATION
While President Duterte drumbeats the completion of some mega infrastructure projects, he was silent on the infrastructure of the mind, particularly basic education.
Quality education, starting from primary school, concededly is the great equalizer, the ladder of social mobility, the beacon of hope, the parents’ cherished dreams, the children’s avowed fulfillment, and the guarantor of success.
Although President Duterte correctly underscored the enactment of the “Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act”, the Duterte administration has utterly failed the pupils, the teachers, and basic education itself.
The World Bank reported that of the 79 countries that participated in Program for International Student Assessment 2018, the Philippines ranked last in reading and second to last in science and math. In Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019, the Philippines’ rank in math and science was lower than in 2003. In the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Matrix 2019, among six participating ASEAN countries, the country never rose above fourth or fifth.
While it is true that the World Bank published the results of the three international education assessments without prior notification to the Department of Education, a breach of protocol for which it has subsequently apologized, the Philippine Government did not refute or contradict the validity of the results.
President Duterte previously attributed the Philippines’ dismally low education ranking to the country’s being poor saying “mahirap lang talaga kasi tayo”. This was a terribly embarrassing and errant excuse which places the cart before the horse because a Philippine Statistics Authority study shows that it is poor education that contributes to poverty, not the other way around.
STATE OF COVID-19 RESPONSE
The acid test to President Duterte’s leadership and ability to solve a serious national problem is the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic which has wreaked havoc on the people’s health and devastated the country’s economy until now.
President Duterte has failed the test and failed miserably.
The contrived assessment of the President’s apologists that his performance in confronting the pandemic is “excellent” is belied by irrefutable data and impartial evaluations, like the following:
When the President delivered his SONA last year, the number of Covid-19 positive cases was 80,448, compared to yesterday’s data of 1,548,755, which is 1,924 percent or close to 2,000 precent higher than it was a year ago. The number of deaths due to Covid on July 27, 2020 was 1,932, yesterday it stood at 27,224, which is 1,409 percent higher.
While the numbers were expected to increase, the inordinate escalation is an indictment of this administration’s ineffectiveness, to say the least.
With respect to other ASEAN countries, the Philippines also fared poorly in fully vaccinating its citizens. Consider the following:
Latest data show that Singapore placed first for having fully vaccinated a whopping 48 percent of its total population; Cambodia is second with 25 percent; Malaysia ranked third with 16 percent; Laos is fourth with 9.2 percent; Indonesia, with a population of 276.4 million, placed fifth for fully vaccinating an amazing 17.01 million people or 6.2 percent of all Indonesians; Thailand placed sixth with 5.1 percent; Brunei ranked seventh with 4.8 percent; the Philippines placed a lowly eighth out of 10 nations with a mere 4.6 percent fully inoculated; followed by troubled Myanmar at ninth with 2.8 percent; at tenth place is Vietnam, which has one of the lowest Covid-19 infection rates and deaths worldwide, thus making inoculation low in its priorities, with only 0.34 percent .
Due to the anemic response of the Duterte administration to the contagion, Moody’s Analytics projected that the Philippines would be dead last among 45 countries of the Asia-Pacific region to recover from the pandemic-induced recession in the last quarter of 2022.
Global media outfits, and foreign and local analysts and economists have similar assessments of the Philippine performance:
Nikkei Asia’s award-winning journalist William Pesek in December 7, 2020 labeled the Duterte administration a “poser government” or one led by pseudo leader, “Southeast Asia’s weakest economic link”, and its Covid response “heavy-handed with the lockdowns” and “far less competent with testing, contact-tracing and strategies to balance health risks with a reopening the economy”.
In February 22, 2021, the Straits Times published an article entitled “The incompetence of the Philippines Covid-19 response” which discusses how government’s ineptitude led to the unforgivable delay in the vaccine rollout.
On the domestic front, political science professor Richard Heydarian on January 11, 2021 wrote in Nikkei Asia an opinion piece entitled “Duterte’s COVID blunders will set the Philippines back generations” where he asserted that President Duterte has “conveniently overlooked the vital importance of proactive leadership in times of crisis” and that his rejection of Western vaccines until the last minute and over dependence on vaccines from China “has left the Philippines without quality vaccines until mid-2021.”
In Business World, economist Andrew J. Masigan on April 25, 2021 wrote that “the international press has declared President Duterte’s government’s COVID response as the most incompetent in the region.”
On July 13, 2021, CNN Philippines enumerated the following Duterte administration’s broken Covid-19 promises: (1) government “missed its initial target of going back to normalcy by December 2020”; (2) government first targeted a contract tracing ratio of “between 1:30 and 1:37” but after several months of missing the goal, it was lowered to 1:15. The Department of Health now admits that the average contact tracing ratio is “1:6 as of June”; and (3) government undertook to attain herd immunity by the end of 2021 as it promised to inoculate 70 million Filipinos by December. But as of July 2021, it has only managed to fully vaccinate just over five million, far lower than its target of 70 million.
STATE OF THE ICC INVESTIGATION
President Duterte does not only continue to evade the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but also defies the Supreme Court in its unanimous decision which: (a) upheld the jurisdiction of ICC over the alleged offenses of the President and his men for crimes against humanity and other atrocities due to his brutal war on drugs; (b) rejected Duterte’s posturing that the Philippine withdrawal on March 16, 2018 from the Rome Statute, which created the ICC, ousted the ICC’s jurisdiction over him; (c) confirmed that under Article 127 of the Rome Statute, the effectivity of a state party’s withdrawal is one year after the receipt of the notice of withdrawal of the United Nations Secretary-General, in which case, the withdrawal of the Philippines became effective only on March 17, 2019; and (d) pronounced that consequently, all covered offenses committed by Duterte and his cohorts from November 2011 when the Philippines became a state party to the Rome Statute until March 16, 2019 fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC, and the Philippines is obligated to cooperate with the investigation of the ICC’s prosecutor.
Despite the categorical decision of the High Court, Malacañang insists that President Duterte will continue to defy the jurisdiction of the ICC. It dismissively added that anyway the ICC cannot enforce its jurisdiction. The fact that the ICC has no enforcement arm aggravates the gravity of Duterte’s evasion from ICC’s jurisdiction. The absence of a policeman does not justify impunity.
STATE OF FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
President Duterte’s contempt of the Constitution is highlighted by his derogation of the freedom of the press, which is a component of the freedom of expression. In his SONA he insisted that ABS-CBN cheated the government in unpaid taxes, despite clearances from the tax agencies.
The Reporters Without Boarders (RWB) ranked the Philippines a lowly 138th out of 180 countries in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index where freedom of the press is imperiled. It also included President Duterte among the 37 world leaders branded “press freedom predators”.
The RWB documents the threatening attacks of President Duterte against The Philippine Daily Inquirer, which critically reported on President Duterte’s bloody war on drugs; the brazen denial of ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal at the behest of President Duterte; the malicious criminal charges against Maria Ressa of Rappler who has exposed President Duterte’s flawed policies; and the horrific employment of armies of trolls who harass and vilify journalists and critics of government online.
The President has failed to appreciate that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the hallmarks of a democratic government. Paraphrasing the Supreme Court in Tulfo vs. People, without these freedoms the errors of government would go unnoticed, its abuses unexposed, and official wrongdoings unrectified.
STATE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Right after the Second World War, the Philippines actively participated in the drafting of the United Nations charter to help promote international peace and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The country has ratified eight out of nine core international human rights instruments, thus firming up the Philippines’ commitment to protecting and promoting human rights and upholding the dignity and worth of the human person. Hence, the Philippines had been globally hailed.
Such singular distinction has been obliterated by the current dismal human rights transgressions, like extra-judicial killings, repressive policies, and harassments and summary executions of human rights defenders (HRDs). The Constitution provides that: “The State values the dignity of every human person and guarantees full respect for human rights,” thereby prohibiting the infliction of torture and other cruel, degrading or inhuman punishment, more particularly the death penalty. Consequently, the Congress enacted R.A. 9346 prohibiting the imposition of the death penalty in 2006; R.A. 9745 or the Anti-Torture Act in 2009 and R.A. 10353 or the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act in 2012.
What these laws prohibit, government defiantly practices. Seemingly unmindful of the constitutional and legal proscription of judicial killing or the death penalty, President Duterte instigates what is even worse – EJK – throwing due process of law into the dustbin.
It is lamentable that HRDs who condemn EJKs and assist victims and their families access justice are labeled coddlers of criminals. Some of them have become victims of EJK and other human rights violations themselves.
STATE OF CORRUPTION
An initial pillar of President Duterte’s administration was the bold pronouncement to end official corruption. This pillar has crumbled with no less than President Duterte himself in a televised speech on September 29, 2020 saying he offered to resign because “I was getting fed up… There’s really no end to this corruption. It’s really hard to stop it … Can you stop it? You cannot. There’s no way”.
A month later on October 27, 2020, he said: “this country continues to be plagued with corruption … hindi humihina, lumalakas pa lalo.”
In his SONA, he repeated this defeatist attitude when he said that: “[c]orruption is endemic in the government. You cannot stop corruption, nobody can stop corruption, unless we overturn the government completely.” This is another major promise down the drain.
Consequently, in the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index the Duterte administration has a score of 34 while the best performing countries, New Zealand and Denmark both scored 88. In terms of ranking the Philippines placed 115th out of 179 countries.
Compared to other ASEAN countries, the Philippines ranked 7th out of 10 nations lower than Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.
STATE OF THE DRUG MENACE
It is an irony that President Duterte’s centerpiece program – the elimination of the drug menace – is his Waterloo. Instead of saving lives from the clutches of drug addiction, thousands of lives have been forfeited to his unabated brutal war on drugs.
The official tally is close to 7,000 deaths, but civil society and both local and international human rights groups count 30,000 extrajudicial killings.
Whatever the horrific figure is, the fact is almost all the victims are impoverished and marginalized whose deaths were mostly instigated by President Duterte’s “kill, kill, kill” pronouncements, and where the culprit agents of the State were extended the presidential shield and condonation.
Although early into his administration President Duterte has repeatedly admitted that his drug war has failed, the deadly anti-drug campaign continues to be waged.
While every single nation in Southeast Asia faces a drug menace, only President Duterte is obsessed and possessed by it.
Verily, President Duterte both has floundered in his centerpiece program of terminating the drug scrouge, and failed in competently, adequately, and speedily confronting the pandemic crisis, a failure which is compounded by his lack of a pandemic roadmap to revive the people’s health and restore the economy.
What President Duterte failed to accomplish or fulfill in five years, he cannot cram into completion in barely six months considering the onset of the election fever in early 2022.
The electorate’s own SONA in the 2022 elections will be the popular clapback to President Duterte’s final SONA.
*Emailed officially to the Plenary Affairs Bureau on 27 July 2021. Delivery reset to 28 July 2021 in the afternoon because the session yesterday was suspended in deference to the death of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, who was a 3-term Representative of Tarlac.