Middle class blues

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“Government insists the surge in rice prices is primarily a lack of rice supply.

The Filipino middle classes judge a government by the state of their wallets.

Government is a good one if the middle class wallet is fat. Government is a bad one if middle class wallet is thin.

This reflection is not surprising for any analyst of Filipino politics. But the reflection bears repeating, particularly in the wake of Mr. Duterte’s alarming drop in his latest satisfaction ratings.

Done last 15 to 23 September, the Social Weather Station (SWS) reported Mr. Duterte’s nationwide satisfaction ratings plunged by at least eight points, from his previous +58 net satisfaction rating last June to +50.

All social classes from all regions in the country thumbed down Mr. Duterte: two significant results which by itself deserve close scrutiny.

But we can safely leave for now these two significant findings and focus our energies on an even more significant result: Mr. Duterte is fast losing support among the rich and middle classes, the bourgeoisie.

By class, the Duterte administration’s net satisfaction dropped from +81 to +47 among classes ABC. Among Class D, the drop was from +56 to +50 and from Class E, from +62 to +49.

Despite the drops, the SWS still classifies Mr. Duterte’s net satisfaction ratings as “very good.” Yet that classification hides a brutal political fact.

The brutal political fact is that any erosion of middle class support for Mr. Duterte raises the administration’s political risk, with political instability the immediate prospect.

The administration had counted on middle class support for much of its life. In fact, the middle class is considered the political linchpin of the administration’s brutal war against illegal drugs.

Previous surveys indicated the middle class wholly supported the drug war, despite tough questions about the brutality of the killings and the short circuiting of legal processes.

Many have traced this support to the fact that many in the Filipino middle classes have historically valued physical security and peace and order over rights and freedoms.

A fact which the war against illegal drugs highlighted. Many in the middle classes feared the anecdotal brutality and violence of drug addicts threatened their immediate physical surroundings that foregoing tedious legal processes was acceptable.

But in recent months this “pragmatic” morality collapsed in face of galloping inflation, the highest in Asia.

Inflation is now the major political issue for the middle classes. Financial insecurities is trumping peace and order concerns.

Inflation is hitting the middle classes hard, forcing tightening of belts in face of rising food and fuel costs: a lifestyle of austerity.

“Previous surveys indicated the middle class wholly supported the drug war.

A lifestyle of austerity for the middle classes means fewer movies, using the car less and cutting on purchases of non-essential items.

Given that austerity lifestyle, the middle classes are questioning key economic policies like the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion or TRAIN law as well as taking a hard look at the abilities of government functionaries.

Because inflation is now a major political issue, inflation is putting an enormous stress on government because government has to appease an incensed public.

Scrambling to appease loud grumbles, particularly on the unabated rise of rice prices, government liberalized the importation of rice, corn and other foodstuffs.

Government insists the surge in rice prices is primarily a lack of rice supply.

Government also sidelined shortsighted government functionaries, particularly those who mistakenly choked imports of cheap rice meant for the poor and which had largely fueled inflation.

But government’s redoubled efforts on ensuring food security by liberalizing imports may be too late. Lawmaker and economist Joey Salceda believes prices of some food items like rice and fish will not go back to old levels.

Government is also blaming higher global oil prices for the surge in prices. But economic analysts say that compared to other oil importing countries in Southeast Asia, it is only the Philippines which is experiencing surging inflation.

All these, including the peso’s continuing slump, are just some issues which inflation stirred up. Yet these issues are already forcing government face up to hard decisions on whether or not to do away with excise taxes on fuel or valued added taxes on food: all valuable revenue sources for government and its ambitious infrastructure program.

Combatting inflation will eat up most of this government’s energies. But government has no choice but fight inflation tooth-and-nail. Doing nothing against skyrocketing prices actually puts the whole economy at risk.

While the economy is still considered one of Asia’s fastest growing, economic growth has stalled in recent months.

The economy will stall further, some economists believe, because higher prices tends to reduce the purchasing power and spending of households and consumers. About 70 per cent of the local economy is dependent private purchasing power.

It goes without saying that all these and a host of other economic issues make the poor even poorer. Explosive risks are involved in pushing the downtrodden further.

But, in the meantime, we cannot also discount the immediate political risks when many in the middle classes fear rejoining those living at the poverty level.

Such middle class fears will make them emotionally receptive to political pitches, in the coming mid-term elections, starkly different from that of government. Inflation will be a key campaign issue.

Email: nevqjr@yahoo.com.ph

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