In general, the recently concluded elections provide us with two clear messages — the reiteration that Bicolanos vote independently as show by the presence of Otso Diretso candidates in the Region’s Magic 12; and, the incoming consolidation of political power by the sitting President. Because of the latter, we can expect complications to occur especially in relation to the first message. Let us examine these complications in terms of leadership, and the possible repercussions on the region’s political and economic fronts.
First, it is an accepted fact that while President Duterte is known to be generous in rewarding his supporters and allies, he is not your typical all-forgiving guy. When he was still a mayor, he was tough against those who violated Davao City’s ordinances penalizing them or even shaming them be they visiting local officials from other areas or bodyguards to whom he entrusts his life. When he was elected president, he was claimed to have also caused the imprisonment of Senator Leila Delima because the latter earlier tried to uncover his alleged links to the Davao Death Squad. Adding the list are the removal of Vice President Leni Robredo from the Cabinet when the latter expressed her opinion against the President’s war on drugs, and the left and right cases filed against Senator Antonio Trillanes IV for being the voice of the opposition, among others. With these, will the “electoral disobedience” then of the Bicolanos spell a brighter future?
Second, it can also be expected that Duterte will sustain his approach in combating illegal drugs. This invites more scrutiny from the international community which will not only shake the country’s fragile state but also the tourism industry to which the Bicol Region depends on. Who would want to visit a security-challenged destination in the first place?
Third, it is also expected that Duterte will sustain trade liberalization and import-dependent economic policy. With cheap agricultural produce flooding in from China and neighboring countries in southeast Asia, Bicol region’s economy, being agriculture-based, will surely come to a fold. Worse, there are no major industries in Region 5 that could accommodate the labor force that will be displaced in the agri-sector.
Next, the pivot to China and the feeble response to the “Chinese invasion” of the West Philippine Sea will also drive (or is now driving) fishermen from the western side of the country right to the east. The result is increased competition with Bicolano fishermen who, because of poor fish catch, are now struggling to make ends meet. Will Bicol now move forward and gain the top spot rank in terms of poverty incidence?
The consolidation of Duterte’s political power is also expected to give him more leverage in pushing for charter change particularly calling the shift to federalism. But while the idea of a federal state is enticing to almost half of the Bicolanos, recent studies show that the region is not among the four that will stand to benefit economically from the shift. Region 5 has little natural resource and poor economic base that could sustain its operations should the shift occurs. Worse, Bicol is also a disaster-prone region and this is not among the considerations in the tax-sharing arrangements contemplated in the administration-backed federalism proposals.
But of course, nothing is all bad for the Bicol Region. With a supermajority of the Congressional and local level politicians elected in the region who are aligned with the President, we can still hope for what Luis Villafuerte calls as “turugbong na tubo” to channel some largesse from the national government down to the local government units. This, though, still remains to be seen because since Duterte’s ascension to power, only the same projects started during the Arroyo and Aquino Administrations were included, or continued, under the “Build, Build, Build Program”. Could it be that our local politicians are reserving their cards before they “call a friend”?
On another note, the Bicolanos are a resilient people. They thrived since the Ibalong days, survived the Marcos regime, and lived beyond EDSA. No doubt, they will continue to stand and face whatever happens even under Duterte. ###
Note: This article appears in the Maiden Issue of the Bicol Express Magazine