PEOPLE tend to take more decisive political action after experiencing the convergence of what may be labeled as economic and political discontent, and the persistence of such discontent. If people are unhappy with governance, but happy with the economy, then they tend to be subdued or reserved in their opposition. The same with the reverse. But if people are unhappy with both the government and the economy at the same time, then expect some trouble.
The French Revolution of 1789 was preceded by a situation where the French government, under a monarch, was heavily in debt after years of war abroad. It thus imposed new taxes, which heavily burdened commoners. At the same time, years of bad harvests, which were supposedly worsened by deregulation of the grain industry, resulted in public resentment particularly towards the rich as well as the clergy, who remained well-fed.
The situation prompted commoners, dying of hunger, to demand change. A violent upheaval, led by the poor, resulted in the eventual storming and fall of the Bastille, the fortress/armory/prison that “represented” royal authority in Paris. The revolution took hold, ousted and executed the monarchy, and led to the rise of Napoleon and the creation of the republic.
About 200 years later, in the United Kingdom, the “Winter of Discontent” occurred in 1978–1979, when public sector trade unions went on strike as they demanded larger pay rises. This was after the Labor Party government led by then Prime Minister James Callaghan imposed salary caps to fight inflation. In early 1979, blizzards and deep snow, the coldest since 1962–1963, rendered some jobs impossible, reducing retail spending, and worsening the UK economy.
Despite what was then publicly perceived as “chaos” resulting from unemployment and strikes by bus and truck drivers as well as garbage collectors and grave diggers and in the UK, then PM James Callaghan reportedly had this to say to journalists: “Well, that’s a judgment that you are making. I promise you that if you look at it from outside, and perhaps you’re taking rather a parochial view at the moment, I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.”
Other developments at the time: just before winter, in September of 1978, Callaghan’s Labor Party government announced that no general elections would be held that year, which left many voters dismayed. Then, the public workers’ strikes occurred in winter, which impacted on voters as well. Thus, by January of 1979, the opposing Conservative Party was already leading in the polls.
Then, in March 1979, referendums on “devolution” were held in Scotland and Wales. The matter lost in both territories, prompting the Scottish National Party to withdraw support for the Callaghan government. This led to the calling of a general election, which allowed the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher to boot out the Callaghan government. The “Winter of Discontent,” which was also part of the opening line of William Shakespeare’s Richard III, is seen as a major factor in the eventual fall of Callaghan.
Not too long after that, in early 1986, another government, this time in Southeast Asia, fell in a popular revolt. It was, to my mind, also the result of the convergence of political and economic discontent. At the time, the nation was grappling with inflation — from a high 20.9% in 1979 to an even higher 50.3% in 1984, and 23.1% in 1985. The economy was in shambles particularly in 1983 to 1985. Elections were also called in February 1986 by President Marcos, but the results were put into question given allegations of manipulation by the incumbent.
There was already brewing political discontent, especially during and after a period of political suppression during the martial law years from 1972 to 1981. And when the economy also started to stumble further from 1983 onwards, certain groups and political factions were prompted to call for a change in government. Popular support was gained in the process, and culminated in an uprising that resulted in the ouster of Marcos and the exile of his family. And the rest was history, as they say.
An “upheaval” of sorts also occurred in 2016, when a new president was elected given a strong clamor for “change.” A local political figure, rather than a national one, then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, gained national public support to ascend to the presidency. Economic discontent was not exactly an issue at the time, but there was mounting dissatisfaction with the previous Aquino government in line with the delivery particularly of public services.
Some issues were local, like those involving vehicular traffic and mass transit in Metro Manila, and some were national but parochial like lack of license cards and license plates. However, the Aquino government’s seeming lack of attention to these things, including incidents of “tanim-bala” at the airports, all came together to prompt a call for change. There was also a perceived disconnect between the Aquino government and the common man.
To date, we are still experiencing a lot of “bottlenecks” in the delivery of services. For a time, passport supply was an issue. And we still lack license plates and license cards. Airports and roads remain congested, and mass transit issues remain. There is also talk of hospitals not being able to collect from PhilHealth for services rendered to the taxpaying public. There is also brewing unrest in the ranks of labor, over issues of wages and contractualization.
Couple this now with inflation, rising prices of fuel locally and abroad, additional consumption taxes, a rice supply shortage and the rising prices of food, brewing crises involving power or energy supply and potable water supply, and geopolitical developments including scuffles at West Philippine Sea and a trade war between the US and China. The foreign exchange rate is also pointing to a weaker peso, while the stock market has been bearish.
Inflation, and rising interest rates, are seen to persist until October at least. Food price crises are seen to persist as well. Aggravating factors in the coming quarter are the coming Christmas season, winter that usually results in higher global prices for oil and fuel, as well as typhoons and weather disturbances that can impact harvest and food supply. Global trade disruptions are also expected.
It is anybody’s guess what is in store for us late in the fourth quarter. But I see trouble brewing ahead. One hopes that the government can soon address particularly local supply bottlenecks that can bring food prices down, temper inflation, and lower interest rates. Improving on gut issues like food, and the delivery of basic public services, are measures that have the most immediate impact on the public, especially the poor. We need to prioritize fixing the economy. Politics can wait.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council