President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr delivered his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 24 July 2023, with a little over a year under his belt. Unlike his predecessor, he emphasised science, the rule of law, the importance of the justice system, the need to protect constitutional rights and the importance of defending the nation’s sovereignty.
While Bongbong still emphasised the continuation of certain policy directions, such as combatting illegal drugs, maintaining strong macroeconomic fundamentals, boosting infrastructure (under the ‘Build Better More program’) and recovering the country’s economic growth path after the pandemic — all these seemed to reflect a policy recalibration that appeared to favour evidence-based approaches.
The Marcos administration increased the focus on community-based treatment, rehabilitation, education and reintegration, to curb drug dependence — a clear departure from punitive approaches to combatting illegal drug use that the Duterte administration espoused. President Marcos also signalled renewed emphasis on private sector partnerships and investments, framing the controversial Maharlika Investment Fund, a new sovereign wealth fund created and signed into law earlier that same month, as a means to channel strategic investments into the Philippines ‘without the added debt burden’. This is a seeming break from the aggressive debt financing posture of the past years.
President Marcos also emphasised protecting the country’s sovereign rights and territorial integrity ‘in defence of a rules-based international order’, signalling the dramatic shift in foreign policy and bringing the country back to its traditional defence allies, notably the United States.
Many development stakeholders welcomed the appointment of some well-known reformists in the Marcos cabinet, and early gains had clear links to these technocrats. Examples include the direction-setting Philippine Development Plan, the apparent success in generating investment pledges for the country and the clarification of the standards of training of Filipino seafarers. They also include the debt forgiveness offered to farmers, the proposal on changes in the fisheries code, the government response to El Nino and the critically important recalibration in foreign policy.
But the Maharlika Investment Fund’s success is less certain given how divisive the issue became. Beyond its controversial name, which harks back to former president Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s time, there are concerns over the fund’s governance and state-backed financing.
Responses to inflation have so far produced mixed results — on the one hand, the government has deployed targeted support mechanisms for hard-hit low-income families and drivers of public utility vehicles. On the other hand, the government is still facing challenges in the importation and commercial trade of key food products such as rice, sugar and onions given the lack of reforms in agricultural supply.
In addition, Kadiwa, part of the government’s effort to bridge farmers with consumers, revives a failed policy dating back to the Ferdinand Marcos Sr administration. Back then it had a ‘buy high from farmers and sell low to consumers’ strategy which was a recipe for unsustainability and empty store shelves. Challenges seem to hound its revival.
Recent food price volatility attributed to collusion involving some officials and a recent revelation of leakages in infrastructure spending are among the issues that fuel concerns over the state of the nation’s governance.
Yet President Marcos’ other recalibration is the emphasis on palpable steps to improve the governance environment. One of the key points of the Philippine Development Plan and re-emphasised in Marcos’ SONA is the focus on digitalisation which intends to ‘support the government’s data-driven and science-based planning and decision-making’.
While these steps are promising, much work remains. Other important areas for reform include transparency and accountability, electoral and political party reform, decentralisation and devolution of powers to the local government units and completing the autonomy processes in the Bangsamoro. Also important is addressing disinformation, resuming the peace process with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, addressing human rights violations, strengthening civic and political education and harnessing citizen participation in governance.
Tackling these issues is needed for deepening democratic governance and strengthening citizens’ participation. These problems add to the challenges of job creation, slashing poverty and reducing inequality — all of which underscore the tenuous recovery from COVID-19. This recovery is now further complicated by inflation, geopolitical risks and a world facing ‘slowbalisation’.
Primed by his overwhelming election victory only a year ago, President Marcos can demonstrate the enduring impact of this mandate by catalysing and convening stakeholder processes on different areas of governance so that they can be pushed forward. He can also remove the perception that he is only interested in improving the image of his family name.
Since the administration so far offers mixed results after over a year in office, it remains to be seen whether President Marcos will be able to leverage his ‘unity alliance’ in favour of stronger and more credible technocracy, or begin to slide — like administrations in the past — back to mere appointments of political convenience.
Antonio M La Vina is Executive Director of the Manila Observatory, Ateneo de Manila University and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government from 2006 to 2016.
Ronald U Mendoza is Senior Economist at the Ateneo Policy Centre, Ateneo de Manila University and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government from 2016 to 2022.
Philip Arnold Tuano is Dean of the Ateneo School of Government, Ateneo de Manila University from 2022 to the present.