The country is in a deep hole. We are living in a state of multiple crises: health, economy, climate, and food production.
The pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of our public health system and the lack of social protection for the poor. Lockdowns wrecked our economy, forcing business shutdowns and job losses.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted worldwide food prices and supply. We were not spared. It laid bare our problems in food security.
The destruction of many towns and cities due to Typhoon Odette (international name: Rai) back in December was a reminder that climate change is a constant threat. The next destructive typhoon is not a question of if, but when.
The next president can protect you and your livelihood by preparing for these challenges in advance, setting clear policy directions and implementing strategic responses.
We spoke to an economist and governance expert, an urban planner, a human rights advocate, and a Southeast Asia watcher about the urgent issues and tasks for the next president.
“The elections are very important because [the next administration] will inherit a situation where the pandemic remains a challenge, the economy is down, and there’s a lot that needs fixing in the government’s pandemic response,” Ronald Mendoza, outgoing dean of the Ateneo School of Government, told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
The next president will also need to stop the unconscionable killings and human rights violations that happened with impunity in the past six years.
That’s not all. The next president’s stand on many other issues, such as the great power competition between the United States and China, will have an impact on your life. How he or she manages the country’s alliances will affect security, trade, and foreign relations.
Are you leaning in favor of one candidate already? Please continue reading before you decide if you can trust him or her to protect you from these overlapping crises.
Elections offer chance to reboot pandemic response
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. If a new variant threatens another surge, there are better ways to respond than ordering another lockdown.
The first mistake the next president can make is to act as if the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The new government will need to prepare for the possibility of new variants threatening more surges and provide better protection to vulnerable Filipinos, said Mendoza.
“If we don’t have any new variants, it is good for the world and that’s what we hope for. But we cannot base public policy on hope,” he said.
“Already, the scientists are saying there is no real evidence to suggest that this is all over, and that Omicron is the worst one that we will face. There is evidence that vaccination helped us withstand the Omicron surge and it will help us withstand any possible surges in the future.”
Mendoza, who was critical of the government’s response to the pandemic, welcomed the elections as an opportunity for a good reboot. A new president and secretary of health could make positive changes overnight if they learn from what went wrong and what went right over the past two years, he said.
He pushed for evidence-based policies, social protection for the most vulnerable, and making sure public funds are not lost to corruption.
If there’s one thing Mendoza wants to get rid of immediately, it’s Duterte’s harmful rhetoric during his midnight speeches. Do you remember when he downplayed the threat from COVID-19 and when he pushed for local cures and practices without scientific basis?
Vaccination will continue to be an important aspect of the country’s fight against COVID-19, but Mendoza said the next president would need to correct the inequitable distribution of vaccines and continued vaccine hesitancy in some parts of the country.
And should another surge hit the Philippines, the next president should know that there are better responses than ordering another lockdown, he said.
“Lockdown is a signal of failure,” he said, citing the government’s flawed framing of the pandemic as a trade-off between public health and economy.
“Hindi ito either or, pipili ka, ekonomiya o pandemya. Hindi. Parehong napakahalagang asikasuhin natin ‘yan dahil kung hinayaan natin ‘yung ekonomiya, tataob naman tayo dahil mawawalan naman tayo ng trabaho’t magugutom tayo.”
(It’s not an either-or situation where you must choose between the economy and the pandemic. No. It is important to manage both. If we neglect the economy, we’re going to capsize, and people will lose their jobs and go hungry.)
“Kung finocus naman natin ‘yung ekonomiya lang at nagbukas tayo pero wala namang confidence-building, hindi rin lalabas ‘yung mga tao kasi kakabahan pa rin sila na vulnerable tayo to surge, vulnerable tayo to the next strain.”
(If we focus instead on the economy and open up without confidence-building measures in place, the people will not go out because they will worry about the next surge and the next strain.)
Mendoza said one policy that would make a difference would be social protection for informal workers. In case of another surge in COVID-19 cases, they are not forced to go out and work to provide food for their families even if they show symptoms, he said.
“Ang evidence coming out of other Southeast Asian nations is ‘yung may mga formal jobs, usually maayos iyan e. Pero ‘yung mga informal jobs, ‘yung mga “No work, no pay”, walang mga kontrata, papasok at papasok iyan kahit may nararamdaman. At therefore hindi natin mako-contain ‘yung sakit,” he said.
(The evidence coming from other Southeast Asian nations is that those with formal jobs are usually in a better position to withstand the pandemic. Those with informal jobs who have “No work, No Pay” arrangements and have no contracts with their employees, they will be forced to report to work even if they know they are showing symptoms. We will not contain the disease if this is the case.)
Economic recovery depends on next president
The country’s economic recovery is at stake in the May polls. The next president will need to create jobs and help businesses and industries.
If the country’s COVID-19 cases continue to stay low, and there are no new variants that threaten new surges, the next president’s main task will be to expedite economic recovery.
He or she will need to create more jobs, attract investments, and support businesses and industries.
All this requires more spending, but the next president will need to overcome at least two handicaps at the start of his or her term.
One, the government is not as awash with cash as when Duterte took over in 2016. Two, the country’s poor response to the pandemic does not inspire confidence among consumers and investors to reach out for their wallets just yet.
The next president’s economic team – his or her appointees to the National Economic and Development Authority, Department of Finance, and Department of Budget and Management – will have a lot on their plates.
“I actually feel quite bad for the government that will take over because they do not have the buffers and advantages that this [Duterte] administration had when they took over. In fact, this administration squandered some of the buffers,” said Mendoza.
The economy grew as “the rising star in the Asia Pacific” under the late President Benigno Aquino II, an economist by training. His administration managed to lower global risk perception of the Philippines, resulting in credit rating upgrades that lowered the cost of borrowings needed to finance growth.
Aquino also managed to bring down the country’s budget deficit (when government’s expenses exceed revenues) to a low of 0.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015, his last full year in office. This and his notorious underspending bequeathed Duterte with an economy awash with cash. This allowed Duterte to fund his campaign promises such as salary hikes for cops and soldiers.
Six years later, Duterte’s economic team maintained Aquino’s credit ratings despite the pandemic. But it came at a high price. The government borrowed liberally to keep the country afloat during several lockdowns that forced business shutdowns and job losses. Mendoza said the next administration could not borrow as liberally as before because the country’s debt was already at 60.5% of GDP as of the end of 2021.
The lockdowns also resulted in lower tax revenues. In 2021, Duterte’s last full year in office, the budget deficit ballooned to P1.7 trillion or 8.6% of GDP.
While the pandemic was an “act of God,” Mendoza said the economic scarring would not have been as bad if government response was able to balance public health with the need to keep the economy running.
The next president will need confidence-building measures to show that he or she will do better. “We can stimulate all we want, if there’s no confidence and our protection against the next variant is so weak, we cannot even contact-trace properly, taob din iyan (they will still be knocked down).”
“For a fast-growing economy like the Philippines, you want to convey to investors, to tourists, and to development partners that we are the place you should invest in after this pandemic: ‘Look at what we did during the pandemic and during the worst time of the pandemic. We were able to withstand it.’ This was not the case [under Duterte],” he said.
Another major challenge for the next president is the roll out of the Supreme Court’s Mandanas ruling in 2022, which will increase local governments’ share in tax revenues.
Mendoza feared that “bad governance” would be worse for the countryside. He pushed for transparency and accountability in the use of government funds.
Next president will need to protect Filipinos from high food prices, rice supply shortage
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed the country’s dependence on food imports. Vietnam, the country’s top supplier of rice, has also shown a decline in production.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a humanitarian disaster that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people, has shocked the global economy as countries were still reeling from the pandemic.
Its impact was swift. Oil prices rose, pushing the price of commodities that need to be transported, which is everything from food to raw materials and ingredients used in food.
The crisis underscored food insecurity in many countries including the Philippines, said Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asia analyst at the US National War College.
The next president will have to address rising food prices on top of the economic challenges.
“Food prices are already high. They’ve been high for the past couple of years due to the pandemic and changes in global shipping and supply chains,” Abuza said.
“This is going to really slow down economic recoveries everywhere. After two years of really slow economic growth if not contraction in several countries, energy prices are going to soar,” he said.
Russia is the world’s largest exporter of oil to global markets and the second largest crude oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia. Russia and the Ukraine also account for about 20% of global wheat production, which is the main ingredient for bakery products.
Even if the Philippines does not get much in the way of direct imports from Russia, sanctions against Russia have affected global supply, pushing prices up.
The extent of harm it will cause the world economy and the Philippines remains unknown, and so is how long the conflict will last. Abuza feared “it will get worse before it will get better.”
Nomura Global Markets Research downgraded its growth forecast for the country to 6.3% from 6.8% this year. The research firm projected consumer spending to dampen due to inflation that it said could reach 4.6% in 2022.
If tensions don’t ease soon, the Department of Energy projects the price of gasoline per liter to reach P86.72 from less than P60 in early February or before the Ukraine crisis.
Abuza also flagged a future problem with the country’s rice supply because of factors such as sea level rise and the salinization of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam due to the Chinese damming of the Mekong River.
“This matters because Vietnam is the third largest exporter of rice in the world and a key one for the Philippines. The Philippines cannot feed itself and it’s really never been able to feed itself. It’s largely dependent on rice imports,” said Abuza.
“For Indonesia and the Philippines which have growing populations, and both rely on imports, food prices are going to go up so everything from your bread to your rice, to your pastas, all that food stuff’s gonna go up. Cooking oils, whether sunflower seed or vegetable oils, will go up,” he said.
Next president needs to prepare for destructive typhoons, roll out mitigation plans
After Typhoon “Odette” (international name: “Rai”) rampaged through Philippine regions before Christmas 2021, 405 people were reported dead, over a thousand were injured, and over 800,000 were evacuated.
A total of 493 towns and cities declared a state of calamity and damage to agriculture and infrastructure hit P17.7 billion and P29.3 billion, respectively. Two million houses were partially or totally destroyed. Nearly 200,000 fishermen were grounded for days and couldn’t earn their living.
These stories were a repeat of the aftermath of Tropical Storm “Ondoy” (“Ketsana”), which submerged parts of the National Capital Region and neighboring areas in 2009; Typhoon “Pablo” (“Bopha”) which hit Mindanao in 2012, and Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (“Haiyan”) which ravaged central Visayas in 2013.
Warming seas due to climate change have fueled higher-intensity cyclones, and caused increased rainfall and larger storm surges. The Philippines, like neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, has been disproportionately affected.
The next president should prepare for the next big typhoon.
When disasters hit, local government units are the automatic front liners. But because typhoons often cover large swaths of areas, national leadership is always necessary to manage response, said urban planner Ica Fernandez.
The national government is needed to coordinate relief efforts, whether it’s assessing the impact, restoring communication and power lines, clearing operations, or distributing relief goods, she said.
But even before the next destructive typhoon strikes the country, the next president can adopt measures to mitigate the impact of strong typhoons.
Flooding can be mitigated, for example, by reinvesting and strengthening dams, dredging rivers, and managing trash.
It’s also important to relocate people from danger zones, although Fernandez said this has been a struggle for decades because of failure to understand why people refuse to move.
“A lot of the populations that are in waterways and esteros are willing to move as long as [they are given] in-city relocation, which provides all of the basic services which you require to live.”
There are instances when you can’t or don’t need to move people, she added. “We also have a lot of fishing populations who, since time immemorial, have been living on coastlines. You can’t just remove fishermen from the shoreline.”
“There are technologies that can help,” she added, citing sink areas that can absorb and break water flows.
Island towns such as Jolo in Sulu and Bongao in Tawi-Tawi have traditional and customary practices to address climate effects. “There is a reason why we have stilt houses to deal with the flows of water, even before we had the Philippine states… Even prior to modern engineering Filipinos have had traditional ways of dealing with water,” Fernandez said.
What is needed is a people-centered adaptation to climate change, which takes into consideration people’s needs, she said.
Climate change isn’t only about typhoons. There are other problems that will occur, if they’re not already occurring.
Sea level rise is happening in Southeast Asia at a faster rate than other parts of the country. Adaptation measures include building bridges that are taller, building sea walls that are higher, and dealing with mass transportation systems that can withstand sea level rise.
Even one or two degrees of change in the water temperature will affect food security as it can kill some fish species. If drought hits, farmers will have problems getting water to irrigate their land. The National Capital Region is also not new to water woes.
The next president will need to address these problems holistically and comprehensively, said Fernandez. There is a need to review existing national policies on adaptation and mitigation as there are many good laws such as the National Climate Action Plan that are not being implemented, she said.
Next president needs to stop killings, impunity
The death of 17-year-old student Kian delos Santos in August 2017 symbolized the brutality of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drug war.” He was shot in the head twice as he begged for his life. His last words to the police: “Tama na po! May exam pa ako bukas! (Please stop! I have an exam tomorrow!)”
Police claimed he was killed because he fought the arrest but CCTV footage documented how the teenager was dragged to the alley where he was killed. His story roused anger nationwide. Charges led to the guilty sentence of three police officers, the first of such convictions since the drug war began.
The brutality of President Duterte’s “war on drugs” was unconscionable as it killed innocent victims, including children, and left their families devastated emotionally and oftentimes financially.
The next president will need to break the cycle of impunity in human rights violations, said Carlos Conde of the Human Rights Watch.
“The killings need to stop. Not just of the drug war victims, but also activists, journalists, and the leftists. And even, you know, the suspected guerrillas. That has to be communicated clearly from the very start,” he said.
The violence that Duterte unleashed in his drug war was just the beginning. The culture of impunity spread to other government institutions, leading to a collapse in the rule of law.
Duterte’s destruction of the country’s democratic institutions was systematic, said Conde. He politicized and militarized the executive branch, letting the security sector address challenges such as illegal drugs and the pandemic, which would have been better left to health experts.
He captured Congress partly by instilling fear as he accused local politicians of involvement with illegal drugs. He compromised the judiciary by removing Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno via the questionable quo warranto petition.
“Then he took the other pillars. The media, particularly Rappler, PCIJ, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and practically all the media outlets that have been critical not just of the “drug war,” but human rights abuses in general,” said Conde.
Duterte also targeted civil society, demonizing human rights organizations and civic groups. “It’s almost like every front, there was a destruction of the institutions of democracy in the Philippines,” Conde said.
Conde said the political dysfunction certainly did not start during Duterte’s presidency. “The cracks in our system have always been there…. Duterte came along and brought it to its, I suppose, logical conclusion. The cracks were there and all he had to do was to smash it to pieces.”
The next president will need to send a clear message to the world that the new administration respects human rights and democratic principles.
Internally, the next president will need to empower the Commission on Human Rights and “put in place a structure or some system to make sure that accountability will happen at some point,” Conde said.
Externally, he or she should rejoin the International Criminal Court and resume engagements with the European Union, the United States Government, and the UN Human Rights Council.
Abuza said the Philippines would also need to renew its role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or Asean as “a really important voice within Asean for human rights, for media freedoms, for democracy.”
Next president should listen to experts
The next president will decide many other issues that will have an impact on your life.
There are many other issues that will need the next president’s urgent attention. Whether or not he responds to these challenges, and how, will impact our lives.
Mendoza said reforms in the education sector are urgent, too. “[We need to] advance the education system in ways that make our young people resilient to misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.”
The education sector also needs to catch up with the ongoing “fourth industrial revolution” or the “internet of things,” said Mendoza. It’s the future of technology where everyday devices are connected to the web for convenience and will require the labor force to acquire new skills.
“We cannot predict also where that will go in a big way so even us in academic institutions, we’re trying to future-proof our graduates. But what really will be the skills they will need? How prepared should they be in different skill levels?” he said.
The next president will continue to deal with the great power competition between the US and China.
Duterte warmed ties with China despite the military superpower’s aggressions in the West Philippine Sea. He initiated but later cancelled the abrogation of the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the US. As he was about to end his term, the US and Philippine militaries held their biggest war games yet.
Abuza said China would continue “to pay very close attention to US-Philippine relations” regardless of who is elected.
“The next president is going to be dealing with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping for the rest of their term because President Xi will get re-elected,” he said.
The next president will also inherit the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which now leads the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
“The single most important thing we can do, if we are trying to end terrorism in Southern Philippines, is to give all the support we can to make the BARMM successful,” said Abuza. “Nothing will take the wind out of the sails of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and the Mautes…than a successful peace process.”
The tasks are daunting. The next president is advised to surround himself or herself with people who really know the issues well.
Whoever wins, our lives in the next six years will be in his or her hands. – with a report from Elyssa Lopez, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism/Rappler.com
This piece, originally published under the headline “A letter to the Filipino voter, about the vote on May 9,” is republished with permission from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.