The Manila Times - The maneuvering for the 2022 elections has begun

5 March 2020

By Ricardo Saludo | The Manila Times

THE Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) terminated. ABS-CBN Corp.’s franchise held up. Metro Manila water concessions canceled. The Ninoy Aquino International Airport project delayed, while Sangley and Bulacan advance.

And the biggest maneuver so far, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano takes on Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio’s Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HnP) party over Congress leadership.

Few will say it, but analysts at the Center for Strategy, Enterprise and Intelligence, headed by this writer, know the start of pre-election maneuvering when we see it.

All these recent headline-grabbing rifts may seem mostly unrelated, but they all shift power for or against the camp of President Rodrigo Duterte, whether international, media, financial or political clout. And the high-stakes maneuvering for the next presidential polls will only intensify.

Like all elections, the 2022 national contest will decide if the current leadership and its governance and policy framework will continue. But this time, the stakes are far bigger than ever, and so are the big-money and big-power forces at play.

America vs China

The most powerful and wealthiest of the 2022 election players, though they will never meddle openly, are China and the United States. Duterte’s 2016 landslide and his reversal of his predecessor Benigno Aquino 3rd’s pro-US foreign and defense policies have shown how our presidential elections can recast Asian geopolitics.

So, expect Beijing and Washington to support political camps backing their favored policies and initiatives. For China, it’s the Duterte administration, which has boosted ties with China and Russia and cut dependence on America, including the VFA.

Predictably, the US favors the opposition, especially Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo and Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who have opposed ending the VFA and criticized Duterte’s China policy.

Since foreign governments cannot openly favor candidates, Beijing and Washington will provide support through allies in Philippine business and media. So, too, will political camps lining up money and media backers. That’s where the other maneuvers come in.

Taming the billionaires

The franchise troubles of Maynilad Water Services Inc. and Manila Water Co. Inc., and that of the ABS-CBN broadcasting network seem unconnected, until one looks at the billionaires behind these mammoth enterprises.

ABS-CBN’s controlling Lopez family is hugely grateful to the late Corazon Aquino for restoring their Manila Electric Co. and ABS-CBN media enterprises when she took power in 1986. The close ties continued under the presidency of her son, Aquino 3rd, who heads the opposition Liberal Party.

Manila Water, whose service interruptions last year led to the current concession woes, is controled by the Ayala Group, also identified with the Aquino government (former Ayala executives Rogelio Singson and Jose Rene Almendras were Cabinet members).

Amid the concession travails, Ayala sold a big chunk of Manila Water to ports and leisure billionaire Enrique Razon, ceding management control. Razon has made bold moves under Duterte, including the takeover of Iloilo’s decades-old electricity firm.

Maynilad is pressing to regain its concession, even as the two concessionaires reportedly intimated that they might give up billions of pesos in payments due from the government, awarded by international arbitration centers.

Maynilad top shareholder Metro Pacific Investments Corp. (MPIC) is led by Manuel V. Pangilinan and controled by Hong Kong-based, Indonesian-controled First Pacific, which also leads investors in telecommunications (telecoms) giant PLDT Inc. Whether Maynilad would keep its firm stance may also depend on how MPIC’s other infrastructure ventures fare.

Take the P102-billion Manila airport rehabilitation, proposed by a consortium of leading conglomerates: MPIC, Aboitiz, Ayala, Andrew Tan’s Alliance Global, Asia’s Emerging Dragon Corp., Filinvest and the Gokongwei family’s JG Summit.

The unsolicited proposal faces government disapproval if stubborn issues are not resolved soon. Meanwhile, airport projects of San Miguel Corp. in Bulacan and SM Group in Sangley, Cavite proceed with speed (Duterte graced a recent Sangley event).

Pangilinan and Ayala also face adverse state action in telecoms, with PLDT and Globe Telecom Inc. facing competition next March from Dito Telecommunity Corp., a 40-60 venture between China Telecommunications Corp. and the Udenna and Chelsea Logistics companies of Davao businessman and Duterte associate Dennis Uy.

Whether intended or not, these developments caution business not only to avoid excessive profits at the people’s or the state’s expense, as the water and telecom firms have been accused of. They also caution against being identified with the opposition.

Meanwhile, those backing the administration seem blessed, with the rapid expansion of Uy’s empire under Duterte. This impression may be further buttressed if Uy gets a government guarantee for a P700-million Chelsea Logistics loan to buy a ship, so it stays below the single-borrower limit imposed on banks.

For 2022, then, the message in the ups and downs of major conglomerates seems plain: don’t line up with the wrong side.

Standing up to Duterte

The ABS-CBN franchise battle is more about media than money; its main value is not generating campaign funds but delivering campaign messages.

Despite sound legal bases to deny or delay the network’s franchise renewal, including its alleged violation of the Constitution’s ban on any foreign ownership or control, the episode will likely worry all news outlets about government reprisal.

Which is one big reason the opposition is siding with ABS-CBN. If the largest and most powerful media entity in the country is cowed, other broadcasters and print would be pressured to toe the administration line.

But if the network and its defenders win the franchise battle, not only will victory bind them. It will also show other news outlets that they can resist administration pressure and stay alive.

One vocal ABS-CBN backer is Speaker Cayetano, who may want to see the Duterte camp cut down to size. That may be his goal, too, in taking on Duterte-Carpio’s HnP, reneging on the term-sharing deal with HnP stalwart Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, and removing the latter’s allies from key House posts. If Cayetano faces down Duterte’s daughter, it boosts his 2022 clout.

Thus, from superpowers and billionaires to media and politicians, not to mention drug cartels, the real players in 2022 are moving to boost power and influence for the elections. You ain’t seen nothing yet.