By Antonio S. Lopez

Over the next 18 months, three milestones should happen in the Philippines. 

One, the vaccine arrives, just in the nick of time to waylay the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Two, a pandemic under control should trigger consumer confidence to bring up the economy from its worst doldrum in 100 years.  

Consumer spending, by households and by the government, accounts for 73% of the national economic output or GDP. Consumer spending was hobbled by the world’s longest and strictest lockdown that began on March 15, 2020 on the archipelago’s main island, Luzon which accounts for 63% of GDP.

Three, a president is elected and takes over by June 30, 2022, from President Rodrigo Roa Duterte who is enjoying unheard of job approval and trust ratings of 91%.

The popularity of the former Davao mayor of 23 years has not diminished, despite a mismanaged pandemic response, an economy in its worst recession, record extrajudicial killings, and prolonged absences from public view despite the most damaging and debilitating disasters in the last 12 months. 

If the new chief executive is handpicked by the incumbent, then the six years from July 2022 will be more of the same Duterte of the past five years. Duterte’s reign has been the most disruptive in the nation’s history. 

Between 7,000 and 25,000 are estimated to have been killed in the most vicious illegal drugs war ever launched by the government. 

Economic reforms

On the economic front, Duterte focused on modernizing the economy by spending the largest allocation ever for infrastructure – up to P1 trillion a year, or 5.4% of GDP, double the average for infra spending for the past 50 years; reducing corporate income taxes by 10 percentage points (the largest stimulus ever given big business); dramatically easing the rules for doing business and cutting red tape; lowering cost of capital thru the best credit ratings ever and outright interest rate reductions; and holding utilities (telco, water, and electricity) and other giant enterprises (like the now defunct ABS-CBN) to stricter performance audit and accountability.

Until COVID-19 struck in February, the Philippines was becoming an upper middle income country.  Unemployment fell to a record 4.5%, the lowest and equivalent to full employment. 

Poverty incidence fell to a record low of 16.7%, from 23.5% when Duterte began his presidency.  The 6.8-point reduction was equivalent to more than five million Filipinos (one million families) rescued from poverty.

The pandemic wiped out those gains. Unemployment rose to 17.7% in April 2020 before stabilizing at 10% in July 2020.  Poverty is estimated to have returned to over 20% this year, reverting over three million Filipinos back to poverty.

Duterte to hand-pick successor?

With such a mixed record, can Duterte hand-pick his own successor and make him/her win?  Given that people do not seem to blame the President for their unprecedented health and economic woes, the President has the gravitas to make his chosen candidate win.

That candidate for could be anyone or a combination of these four: his daughter, lawyer and Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, his long-time aide and alter ego of 21 years, Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, 46, a La Salle-educated management graduate; former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., 63, and presidential crony Sen. Cynthia A. Villar, 70, the property tycoon whose son, Mark Villar, is Duterte’s public works and highways secretary.  Also, in her place, Cynthia’s husband, Manny B. Villar Jr., 71, the richest Filipino, could run again.  Despite wealth estimated by Forbes of $6.7 billion, Manny lost in the 2010 presidential elections.

Manny Pacquiao the best known Filipino

Outside Duterte’s inner circle, the leading light is  the rags-to-riches boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, 42, the most globally recognized Filipino today with a name recognition that spells outright success in his any undertaking.

Not to be ignored are: the conscientious and independent-minded Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, 72, popular and quiet hardworking Senator Grace Poe, 52, who lost to Duterte and Mar Roxas in 2016; and Vice President Leni Robredo, 55, a lawyer, whose election by a hairline margin against Bongbong, failed to catapult her into a political heavyweight to be reckoned with in 2022. 

Leni Robredo

The widow of the popular LGU executive Jesse Robredo, Leni sometimes comes across as a caricature (thanks to Duterte’s frequent tongue-lashing of her) and has not been disruptive enough as a leader to park big money on in 2022.

Not to be ignored is the emergence of tycoons as possible statesmen. Ramon S. Ang, 66, is vice chair, president, and chief operating officer of food, beverage, energy and infrastructure conglomerate San Miguel Corp.. SMC has P1.852 trillion in assets, P344 billion in cash, and the most gilded name in Philippine business.

The rise of Ramon Ang

A mechanical engineer by training and the quintessential entrepreneur in visioning, Ang has an exuberant and infectious optimism about the future, a bare-knuckle grasp of a wide array of businesses and national problems, and a street-smart warmth and compassion for the man on the street to make him the right guy and the right choice in the worst of times.

The Philippines faces the gravest existential crises since its founding in 1898—the worst pandemic in 100 years and the deepest recession in its history.

When the pandemic struck, Ang was among the first to deploy big time money (more than P11 billion in foregone contributions) to fight the crisis, and secure a cash hoard (P246 billion) to cushion San Miguel from the worst of the pandemic.

His humble message to his business peers: “Stay strong, stay committed in helping out.”

As a future President, Ang is expected to do better than Donald Trump, the worst of the world’s tycoon politicians, and billionaires Sebastian Piñera, the president of Chile, and Andrej Babis, the prime minister of the Czech Republic.  Their record of leadership in their countries has been mixed at best.