Could We Be Next?

It all started inauspiciously.

In Turkey it was the conversion of a park into a mall. In Brazil it was the equivalent of a four peso increase in bus fares. In Indonesia, it was relatively more grave, the withdrawal of a Government subsidy on gas prices. Yet these seemingly inconsequential events triggered riots threatening the stability of government and frightening foreign investors.

While disparate –the protests spanned three nations in three continents with distinct religions and cultures- the riots had commonalities. Unlike in then Eastern Europe and North Africa, the swells were not a reaction to totalitarian regimes. On the contrary, they happened in democratically elected governments with a recent history of improving governance and prospering economies. Brazil and Turkey are investment grade credits.

 Under then President Lula and his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil has emerged from years of corrupt and military government to become one of the leading lights in South America. Brazil is to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.

Turkey is an icon of Islamic secular society, a model for the Arab spring. President Erdogan has instituted social and economic reforms in a nation now recognized as the power broker in the Middle East. Indonesia has instituted better governance to fight corruption.

The authorities were therefore surprised by the vigor and depth of the protests or why they happened at all. They failed to recognize the simmering public discontent whose core was the widening gap in incomes triggered by the very economic progress they were so proud of (The World Bank lists Brazil as the world’s 7th largest economy but in the bottom 10% in income equality). The riots were the emerging market version of last year’s Occupy Wall St. movement in the U.S. and other G-8 nations; whose genesis was also the growing disparity in wealth between the 1% and the 99%. Glaring inequality is not just a Third World phenomenon. We just react to it more violently.

The events in Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia are worth noting because the Philippines bears all the same symptoms. Like them, we have a democratically elected Government, a reformist leadership and a statistically buoyant economy. Unfortunately, like them we also have growing inequality in wealth, corruption and social injustice. Like them our urban centers are increasingly congested and uninhabitable. The Turks were angered by the conversion of a public parc, Filipinos are angered by the overbuilding, traffic and flooding in our cities. Can the riots of Istambul, Sao Paulo and Jakarta become the riots of Manila?

People say we are different. In PNoy we have a truly popular leader. Well so was Brazilian President Rousseff, a former guerilla who was imprisoned by the military dictatorship. Turkish President Erdogan was similarly elected with a large mandate and by all accounts has instituted real reforms even though his ways are now deemed autocratic.

People say we have a higher threshold of patience and pain. Well even Filipino anger has its limits. As elsewhere, there are tectonic shifts under the seeming layer of social placidness in our country. These undercurrents are masked by the glowing economic numbers and praises of credit rating agencies. Yet the troubling signs are there, be it in our worsening unemployment and underemployment, in the marked increase in those below the poverty line, and in the collapse of our urban infrastructure. It is seen in the eyes of daily commuters as they struggle to earn a less than decent livelihood.

PNoy must not be lulled into nirvana by the glowing reports of his Cabinet officials seeking his benediction or foreign investors singing his glory. Ensconced in the comfort of Malacanang it is easy to believe all is well in the Middle Kingdom when it is not.

Corruption is still ever so present in the lower levels of Government, in our judicial system and in our politics. The rot in our pork barrel system, for one, is increasingly harder to swallow even as we struggle to pay the taxes to support it. The President himself will not be spared as the stench rises to the top. The Opposition, for one, will see to that particularly as we approach 2016.

What could spark a social flare-up in our country? Like in Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia it could be a small thing probably emanating in the cities where economic disparities are most evident. It could be the higher water, electricity and transport fares that have been announced, a spike in prices of basic commodities (spurred by the weakening peso), or a breakdown in public services.

Whatever it is, if events elsewhere are a guide, it will be unexpected and seemingly insignificant, the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.

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About Leo Alejandrino

The blog is principally a commentary on Philippine politics and economics.
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6 Responses to Could We Be Next?

  1. Frank Holz says:

    Leo, spot on posting….just one grammatical issue: surely you meant “innocuous” at the start, not “inauspicious”. Best, Frank

  2. Joe says:

    leo, perhaps you can elaborate on what the possible tipping points are for the Philippines.   enjoy your columns.   joe sycip

  3. Cristina Tabora says:

    Unfortunately, too true. Fortunately (?), Filipinos are arm-chair revolutionists.

  4. Roy says:

    How can we be next when we were first? it’s only been 27 years since 1986 when Filipinos demanded change and got it. how easy some people forget… will it happen again?… maybe, but not in the next 4 years.

  5. Dionisio Gil, Jr. says:

    A most insightful commentary. There are so many potential tipping points that may just converge within a matter of weeks.months…Consider increases in electricity, water, MRT fares and gasoline. Inflame that with another flash flood causing 4 to 5 hour traffic gridlocks. Think of BIR’s intransigence on the new receipts ( and now, they’re after the bank accounts of the dead). Such callousness; such insensitivity ! How about the unending delays in infrastructure bids, in NAIA’s rehabilitation etc etc. Douse more gasoline on our hapless OFW women and their “bantay salakay” DFA/DOLE protectors cum sexploiters. Then there is the matter of ridding the esteros and river banks of squatters. Can you visualize the hundreds of young and old squatters throwing stones at a phalanx of soldiers? Tipping points? Choose from any combination of the above.

    I submit that we should proceed with most of the infrastructure projects. However, most of the unpopular initiatives must be carefully implemented. For example, why increase the MRT fares when service continues to suck and worse? Why must the BIR chase the dead when it has not yet jailed any tax cheat of consequence? Why do we allow EDSA to be remain congested by many half empty and illegal buses?

    Jun Gil

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