Socio-economic issues are people’s top concerns


Five days before President Rodrigo Roa Duterte delivers his first state-of-the-nation address on Monday, he was gifted by the Pulse Asia Survey with the report that its nationwide survey on July 2-8 (his first week in office) showed a 91 percent trust rating for him – both across the nation and socio-economic classes. (His predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III, got an 85 percent trust rating in a similar survey in July 2010.)

The nine-to-one public trust record was largely anticipated. We need not dwell on it further. More important to mull over are the issues that the surveyed respondents want President Duterte to focus on in the first six months of his term. And the people expect him to take heed because, in his brief inaugural address on June 30, Duterte enjoined government officials to “listen to the murmurings of the people, feel their pulse, supply their needs….”

Of the nine issues Pulse Asia listed, the survey results show high-priority ratings for five socio-economic concerns: curbing inflation (rising prices of goods and services), 68 percent; stimulating the economy to create more jobs, 56 percent; crafting pro-people programs like free education, health care, and housing, 55 percent; providing loans to small businesses and the self-employed, 23 percent; and a program to address the government’s debt problem, 17 percent.

Reducing criminality ranks only fourth among the top priorities, with a 48 percent rating. (During the presidential campaign Duterte promised to end criminality and the sale of illegal drugs within three to six months of his becoming president.) The still-unabated spate of drug-related killings had already begun weeks before the survey.

Given equal priority rating (17 percent) as addressing the government’s debt problem is the political issue of “negotiating peace settlements with various armed political groups.” Last Tuesday President Duterte reportedly approved a “peace roadmap”, presented to him and the Cabinet national security cluster by presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza. The plan dwells on peace negotiations and settlement proposals on the armed conflicts with the Left revolutionary forces (CPP-NPA/NDFP) and with the Bangsamoro groups (MILF, MNLF, and others).

Occupying the bottom of the survey list of concerns are two items in Duterte’s declared political agenda: “forging a government of national unity to reduce political hostilities,” nine percent; and “creating concrete measures to change the (1987) Constitution,” seven percent.

One would assume that “forging a government of national unity to reduce political hostilities” is correlated with “negotiating peace settlements with various armed political groups.” Yet there is a stark difference in the ratings given to the two issues.

Whereas 17 percent of the people surveyed urge the government to negotiate peace with armed political groups, only nine percent endorse the proposal for a government of national unity. There is thus an urgent need for the Duterte administration, or any other party proposing the same, to explain what its concept of a government of national unity is all about. For instance, what political principles does it embody? And what political arrangements with erstwhile hostile political forces must the government agree to institute in order to achieve a government of national unity?.

The Duterte government has agreed to resume on Aug. 20-27 the GPH-NDFP formal peace talks (in limbo since 2012). Once the two panels affirm a list of actions their representatives had informally drawn up in mid-June (discussed in this space on June 18), the formal negotiations can proceed apace on the remaining three substantive agenda: social and economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, and the end of hostilities and disposition of forces.

If all goes well, at a certain stage a proposal on forging a government of national unity, peace, and development is likely to be put on the table.

Back to the socio-economic measures the Duterte government is urged to focus on:

Stimulating the economy to create more jobs and instituting pro-poor programs, such as free education, health care, can both be planned or initiated within six months. But it will require a much longer period, years to be sure – and much more work to be done – to produce the desired results.

To achieve these goals and all-round national development and prosperity for all Filipinos will require thoroughgoing social and economic reforms. Such type of reforms are what are proposed to be negotiated and agreed on in the GPH-NDFP peace talks. Social and economic reforms will be discussed within the ambit of national industrialization controlled by Filipinos in tandem with agrarian reform and agricultural modernization. The reforms shall include full protection and fostering of workers’ rights and ensure the equal participation of women in both industry and agriculture, among others.

National industrialization entails fully utilizing modern technology to build basic industries (such as steel and petrochemicals), heavy industries producing capital goods with ancillary industries producing components/spare parts; and light industries manufacturing various consumer goods. Agrarian reform involves free distribution of lands to landless peasants with appropriate state support and organizing farmers into cooperatives to maximize productivity, among others. Agricultural modernization necessitates mechanization, application of apt technology, and crop diversification leading to building agricultural-product processing industries that will provide jobs in rural areas.

Socio-economic reforms that address the root causes of the prolonged armed conflict will constitute the main elements of a final comprehensive peace pact. They will greatly define the political and constitutional reforms that will be negotiated in the third agenda of the GPH-NDFP peace talks.

A great opportunity thus opens up for President Duterte, who declares himself a “socialist,” to exercise the political will to negotiate with the NDFP and forge the necessary reform agreements that will provide sustainable benefits to our people, especially the majority of the poor.

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Published in the Philippine Star
July 23, 2016

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