The penultimate, or next to last, State of the Nation Address of a president under our presidential system generally represents the last chance for an administration to do something ambitious. That’s because the last such address is really a valedictory or farewell address, as the big reassembling of coalitions starts with people jumping ship as they attempt to see in which direction the political winds are blowing for the coming national elections. With this in mind, it’s well to bear in mind that in terms of Monday’s fifth Sona for the President, the one, solitary, big idea in it is a get-rich-quick scheme for the faithful, namely the Third Telco. It was as if the President hoisted the jolly roger over the Batasan, turning the three branches of government into a fleet of privateers.
The President, practically from the start, beat his chest and bared his fangs in triumph over the taking back by the government of the frequencies assigned to ABS-CBN when the network was denied the renewal of its franchise. This set the stage for the only other big idea of the speech: his declaration of war against the two major telcos, Smart and Globe. The former—the slaying of ABS-CBN—was a necessary setting of the stage for the latter, because the two industries, broadcasting and telecoms, are some of the last big money-makers left within the control of government under present COVID-19-devastated circumstances.
A President, needing to keep a mercenary coalition together with two years to go, with the traditional umbilical cord to Filipinos working abroad severely restricted as to almost be cut for all intents and purposes, and with the domestic economy in its worst state since at least the Marcos years and possibly since the Japanese Occupation, is a leader with an ever-shrinking purse and thus an equally ever-shrinking stick with which to demand obedience. With the money coming in from abroad not only suddenly reduced, but Filipinos coming home from abroad having lost their jobs in droves, and the economic activity that can be taxed severely curtailed, what’s a government, looking for a way to protect itself by electing its successor, to do?
Recall the joke about the Marcos years, when it was said the favorite industry of the Conjugal Dictatorship was Mining: “This is mine, that’s mine, and that’s mine, too.” Being able to dispossess a network of its property and equipment though, either through legal hocus-pocus or psychologically gutting the network of the will to fight, makes it a prize the government can bid out, and there is a role for everyone to maximize in such a situation. The same would go from an attack on the two telcos. The Senate president, for one, asked to react to the President’s beating the war drums, issued a reminder of his own, saying it’s well to remember the government’s arsenal is formidable, starting with franchises. And he’s right, not least because it keeps the fight in arenas where the ruling coalition can best maintain the solidarity of its members.
Waging a battle under the banner of expropriation against the two telcos shields the third telco from scrutiny, keeps its foreign partner happy, and puts everyone else in every other sector on notice, though there are precious few sectors left where government has the leverage it has (not the distribution of power, because that is already in the hands of an entity with a Chinese partner; possibly power generation is left, and so as mentioned last time, expect investigations in Congress to heat up). It provides ideological cover and a common refrain for propaganda; and it sidesteps the reality that the administration is still without a candidate under which to unite its efforts as it seeks its ultimate goal, which is to elect a government in 2022 that will protect it for at least six more years.
Everything else is more of the same or the end of the road. The economic proposals of the economic managers is basically to substitute presidential discretion in offering and handing out investment incentives for the discretion and processes of the institutions of the government. Another incentive for pandering to presidents, in other words, politicizing what had become professionalized under multiple administrations in the past. Then again, the fate of ABS-CBN and the coming ordeal of Smart and Globe means a ripple effect is ongoing, driving away potential investors (Singtel, Globe’s partner, for one, will get the message that China Telecom considers the Philippines its new, exclusive territory).
As for public anxiety over the escalating incidence of COVID-19, the future was foretold at the height of the lockdown: Business could only survive the closing down of the economy until June. It cannot survive another closing down, except in very limited geographical areas. Government did what it could, when it could, and can do no more, precisely because it only knows how to wield blunt instruments.