Soaring rice prices dulling Duterte’s lustre in Philippines
>> Through controversy after controversy, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has always been able to count on his appeal among the nation’s poor. But soaring prices for staples like rice are starting to alienate that vital base of support.
During his presidency, Mr Duterte has often clashed with cherished institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, made jokes about rape and led a brutal war on drugs that has left thousands dead. But he now faces deepening discontent in an area that particularly affects the urban poor: the price of food.
The country’s inflation rate has hit a nine-year record — 6.7% — after climbing for nine consecutive months, the Philippine Statistics Authority said last week. That situation is bad enough that on Tuesday, Mr Duterte ordered restrictions dropped on the importation of rice, ending a decades-old protectionist policy administered by the country’s National Food Authority.
Over the past year, vegetable prices have gone up nearly 20%, fish prices 12 percent and meat prices 7 percent. And while global rice prices have been stable, prices in the Philippines have been as high as double the import price.
“Five hundred pesos feels like one peso now,” said Lilian Gomez, 52, for whom it doesn’t take long these days to hit her budget limit at the Agora market in Manila. “All the prices have gone up since Duterte became president.”
She said she had not bought fresh meat or fish in two months, and she reminisced about cooking dishes whose ingredients she could no longer afford: banana blossoms stewed in coconut milk, eggplant with shrimp paste, spicy taro leaves. To stretch the rice she buys for her family of three, she plumps it into porridge.
Characteristically, Mr Duterte responded to the higher prices first with threats. Publicly, he began suggesting that there was a conspiracy among rice dealers. He labelled them as cartels, hoarders and smugglers, telling them to “stop messing with the people.”
“Consider yourselves warned,” he said, “or the full power of the state will be upon you.”
Emmanuel Pinol, the agriculture secretary, backed up Mr Duterte’s threats with high-profile raids of rice warehouses, and announced a bounty of 250,000 pesos, or about $4,600, or 150,700 baht, for information leading to the arrest of rice hoarders.
The blame began widening, with Mr Duterte suggesting that President Donald Trump’s trade war with China was part of the problem — as were drug addicts, who he joked had replaced their meth habits by eating huge quantities of rice, driving up prices.
The arrival last month of Typhoon Mangkhut destroyed about 250,000 tonnes of rice, according to the agriculture department, which did not help.
The National Food Authority initiated several emergency imports of rice, each time assuring the public that the intervention would drop prices, but it proved too small and too late. Experts say the country’s food agency has become paralysed by infighting among Duterte appointees. And his administration is being widely accused of mismanagement that has steadily worsened inflation and threatened to slow the economic growth that Mr Duterte has prioritised.
Ramon Clarete, a professor of economics at the University of the Philippines Diliman in Quezon City, said the problem with rice, in particular, was a crisis of the government’s own creation.
“It was the incompetent mistake of the NFA not stocking itself adequately that gave fuel to inflation,” Mr Clarete said of the National Food Authority, which is responsible for maintaining rice stocks and influencing prices within the Philippines’ protectionist import regime. “It could be they are not appreciative enough of how the market works. Or cruel.”
Other factors are adding to Mr Duterte’s problems. Global oil prices are rising, making fuel more expensive. The value of the country’s currency, the peso, has weakened because of broader investor concerns about global growth, driving up the price of imports.
But driven to keep the country’s growth revved up for years, leaders in the Philippines have contributed as well. In addition to tightly controlling rice supplies, the country has long kept interest rates low. Mr Duterte has slashed taxes and increased infrastructure spending. All that adds to economic growth but tends to drive prices up, too.
This has created immediate frustrations among the poor and the middle-class Filipinos whom Mr Duterte has heavily courted during his time in office. The administration has lowered import taxes, and pledged to increase supplies of affordable fish and fuel — moves that the political analyst Richard Heydarian described “as a reflection of a sense of desperation on the part of the government.”
With Tuesday’s move to drop restrictions on foreign rice imports, Mr Duterte has taken the biggest step yet, most likely in recognition that his political base is wavering. The urban poor are the largest voting bloc in the Philippines, and Mr Duterte courted their votes with promises to transform their lives and bring in a wave of infrastructure improvements that would modernise the country. A new tax law that was passed to help pay for Mr Duterte’s infrastructure plan lowered income taxes for the middle and upper classes. But it increased excise and value-added taxes, pushing prices up across the board.
While Mr Duterte’s popularity has begun to drop among the poor and the middle class, according to recent polls, it has certainly not disappeared altogether, with satisfaction ratings still topping 60% for his administration. But pollsters say economic worries now dominate lists of national concerns.
Angelito Batac, a 53-year-old carpenter in Navotas, in northern Manila, said: “This started when Mr Duterte became president. We can’t breathe. He’s not doing anything but curse”.
LEARNING TO MANAGE WITH LESS: Fernando Gonzales checks his family’s ration of statesubsidised rice in Manila where soaring food prices are a source of widespread discontent.
VALUABLE STOCK: A National Food Authority rice warehouse in Quezon City, Philippines. Soaring prices for rice is putting the squeeze on Rodrigo Duterte’s government.