President Arroyo is due to give the state of the nation report next week, and years of controversy and scandals are catching up with her.

The latest polls show that she has a low approval rating and a credibility gap: a recent GMA poll notes that only 14% of the public expect her to tell the truth at next week’s state of the nation report to Congress.

The Philippine National Police are getting ready for demonstrations, with news footage emphasizing that they are ready to protect her from angry demonstrators.

Americans should see Arroyo as a female Bill Clinton: a competent president tainted by scandal. Like Bill Clinton, Arroyo is able to smile for her daily photo op on the (pro Arroyo/pro business) Manila Bulletin, while ignoring the scathing reports in the opposition press.

Arroyo is an economist by training, and her administration has favored business investment and jobs for Filipinos overseas, But corruption has tainted her administration that is already unpopular with the common folks who had supported ex President Estrada.

Arroyo, then a vice president, was behind the “people power” type demonstration that removed Estrada for corruption, but many suspect she is just as corrupt.

The difference is that corruption against Arroyo is impossible to prove. Arroyo is surrounded by financial shenanigans that suggest she is corrupt, but the opposition is unable to find a “smoking gun” to prove it.

I can’t keep up on the scandals: There was the Broadband scandal, where a lower clerk named Lozado gave convincing testimony of a huge bribe to one of her husband’s friends by China to get the contract…and earlier scandals about the rail projects, the suspicion that “lost” fertilizer funds (for poor farmers) had been diverted into campaign coffers, and the “Hello Garci” tape (sold by every street vendor of CD’s) where a voice sounding like the president was discussing a vote count. None of these cases have  resulted in more than hearing (i.e. no legal court cases that allowed all the evidence to be judged).

One hint at the local discontent was the election of the popular opposition coalition in the last election. Even an Army officer who was under arrest for attempted mutiny was elected. Go figure. But discontent last year did not result in a popular uprising when this Senator walked out of his courtmartial hearing and took refuge in a local Five star Hotel.

But this year, things could change.

Right now, it’s “hunger season”: The farmers have planted their rice, but not yet harvested it. Usually the price of rice is higher and many of the farmers, having sold the previous crop have run out of their stored rice and may go hungry. This is not as bad in our area, where we irrigate in the dry season, but farmers in higher fields and unirrigated area face dire hunger.
At the same time, the  huge increase in the price of rice means that many cannot afford this staple.

Part of this is weather related, and seasonal. But worldwide, there is a growing problem of food shortages due to increased use of grain for biofuel and diversion of crops to to feed animals. At the same time, there has been a lag in research and development of agriculture. Fewer new hybrids are being produced because there is less money invested in research.There is also less money spent on infrastructure development for irrigation, fertilizer, pesticide control and drying facilities.

The increase in the rice price has been terrible for those with low incomes.

We have seen rice, which two years ago ranged from 18 to 28 pesos a kilogram go to 32 pesos to 40. (exchange rate is 44 pesos per US Dollar).

The government has stepped in with money subsidies for poor people, and by selling discount rice to the poor at the previous 18 pesos per kilogram price. How-this is working, I’m not sure. Presumably some will be diverted into the black market and resold, but not too many stories about this yet.

At the same time, oil has gone through the roof.

To Americans, this means driving is expensive. Here it hits at many levels.

Many people cook with propane instead of wood. Propane was 460 last year; it is now 640 for a large tank.

The common “taxi” here is a motorcycle with side car, used for short hops to the market or school. But with an increase in diesel prices, these drivers will not have as much take home pay: and raising fares means that many will simply go back to walking, or doubling up their trips with others.

Finally, increased oil prices means more expense for handplows, fertilizer, threshing and shipping rice to the market. The government usually sets rice prices, and will compensate farmers with increased prices, but one can see this is merely a way to increase the cycle of inflation.

In poorer areas, farmers have gone back to using water buffalo for plowing and preparing fields; yet this means an increase in backbreaking work, not to mention the time needed to keep the animal healthy and fed.

On top of this is the increased shakiness of the talks between the government and the MILF/Muslim clans in Mindanao. Arroyo has been successful in having the military fight the various insurgencies, and encouraged investment in the infrastructure, but corruption of those involved at all levels is still a major problem.

The more militant groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and some NPA groups have been cut off from their funders overseas thanks to the war on terror, so have been busy getting money,  kidnpapping, extortion, and drugs. Muslim charities still often fund terrorism if the funds are diverted, but with the cut off of the more problematic charity, money now is being brought home in suitcases by OFW’s who are bribed to carry the cash when they return from the Middle East.

On paper, the talks for a Moro homeland sound complicated (a separate state within a nation), but the complications are made worse by clan leaders, both Christian and Muslim, fighting to get their piece of the pie in the negotiations.

So there are a lot of problems simmering here, but the main anger right now is from the inflation that makes it hard to buy food for one’s family, while rumors of multimillion dollar bribes to businessmen and government officials are discussed daily on the many talk radio programs.

In contrast, the TV programs are full of commercials of poor people saying “Salamat Gloria” for their small cash subsidies or ability to buy subsidized food. But here there is a lot of hunger, and a lot of discontent…and the provinces north of Manila are not only the rice growing areas but have a long history of insurgencies.

Since elections are soon (2010) one doesn’t expect another revolution, but everyone is expecting demonstrations next week. How bad the demonstrations get will be a good way to estimate the depth of discontent.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind CLinic and Fishmarket.

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