Groundhog Day is one of my favorite films. The film is a fantasy comedy and tells the story of TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) arriving in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day activities. Groundhog Day refers to Feb. 2 when the town celebrates the tradition of observing whether the groundhog emerging from his burrow foretells the arrival of spring or six more weeks of winter.
Connors hated the assignment and viewed the town with contempt. He wakes up in a motel room on Feb. 2 and goes about doing a perfunctory performance covering the day’s activities. However, after going to bed, he wakes up to find himself on the same day, which goes on and on in a sort of time loop. Realizing he’s on a time loop, Connors indulges in selfish, manipulative actions, including trying to seduce his TV producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), who turns him down.
Eventually, trapped in the time loop, Connors gets tired and depressed, engaging in suicide attempts. However, he keeps waking up on Feb. 2. Only when he becomes unselfish, using the loop to help people and to express his sincere love for Rita, does he break out of the time loop and wakes up on Feb. 3.
For the Lopezes — and the Filipino people — it must have felt like Groundhog Day when ABS-CBN was shut down by President Duterte and his congressional minions. The media giant was also shut down when martial law was declared in 1972 by former President Ferdinand Marcos, using the same rhetoric about going against the oligarchs.
Why do we keep reliving the nightmare? Why are the Filipino people trapped in a sort of time loop?
As I have said before, the causes of our time loop are the twin legislative landmarks of the Yellow Revolution: the 1987 Constitution and the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL).
On one hand, the 1987 Constitution restored pre-martial law electoral democracy, but on the other, it retained the protectionist provisions of the 1935 Constitution. While the people’s freedoms were restored, its economic freedoms were not. The protectionist provisions protected and nurtured monopolies in key strategic industries and in mass media. These protectionist provisions virtually guaranteed that the economic aspirations of the people would not be met compared to the Constitution’s political and democratic objectives.
These protectionist provisions, particularly those on public utilities, had a deleterious effect on the economy and on consumers. As protected monopolies, public utility companies passed on high prices and poor services to consumers. As strategic industries whose outputs are inputs to other industries, these protected monopolies made the economy uncompetitive and unattractive to investments.
The harmful effects on the public’s quality of life caused by the anti-foreign investment provisions of the Constitution laid the groundwork for a populist-fascistic Duterte to harness the people’s grievances and use them to win political points in denouncing the “oligarchs.”
For the Lopezes, these protectionist provisions have a bittersweet irony. Although they were initially passed to protect their businesses (power, telecoms, and media), in the long run, these came back to bite them. With its over-the-air franchise denied, ABS-CBN’s transitioning fully into the future with digital content is hampered by the unaffordability and unavailability of internet services in the country, a result of these protectionist provisions. The ABS-CBN’s use of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) to raise capital in foreign markets and Gabby Lopez’s dual citizenship also became issues because of the 100% Filipino ownership requirement in mass media enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.
As for the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, the other landmark legislation of the Yellow Revolution, on one hand, it did succeed as an anti-insurgency political program (The CPP-NPA armed insurgency has severely waned with the diminishing struggle being waged by ageing leaders), on the other hand, it failed to increase agricultural productivity and reduce rural poverty. In fact, it did not increase agricultural productivity, it reduced it. As the study by the Canadian economists Tasso Adamapoulos and Diego Restuccia published in the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research showed, the CARL caused land fragmentation to increase by 37% and reduce agricultural productivity by 16%. This meant that farmers became poorer after CARL.
The failure of the CARL to improve the lives of farmers and rural residents in the countryside also seeded the appeal of the populism and anti-oligarchic message of Rodrigo Duterte. Furthermore, the widespread poverty makes it easier for a politician like Duterte to channel the people’s frustrations, economic anxieties, and pessimism into a war against drug users and small-time drug dealers — the visible bad guys in street corners and community plazas.
The fact is that present socio-economic conditions will keep regurgitating a fascist-populist like Duterte. The Filipino people will be condemned to relive Groundhog Day again and again with a Marcos or a Duterte unless the evil twins of the protectionist provisions in the 1987 Constitution and the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law are removed or amended.
The first best solutions are undoubtedly to remove the foreign ownership restrictions in the Constitution and to remove the five-hectare retention limit in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law. However, these seem to be politically infeasible presently. The administration has dissipated its political capital punishing its political enemies and pushing for non-solutions like federalism or RevGov.
The second best solutions are to pass the Public Service Act (PSA) Amendment to remove the telecommunications and transport industries from among those protected by the public utility provision in the Constitution and to pass a Debt Condonation law to reverse land fragmentation and enable land consolidation of agrarian reform lands via a vigorous rural land leasing market.
However, the PSA Amendment remains unacted upon in the Senate, the victim of unfounded fears of a Chinese take-over. In fact, the present lack of regulations and foreign investment vetting which the PSA seeks to address will make it easier for the Chinese to take over. (Foreigners already have effective majority ownership of the existing telcos using legal maneuvers.)
The politicians and the monopolists, however, should take heed that retaining these protectionist provisions will come back and bite them. Former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, protective of his mother’s legacy, killed an initiative by former Speaker Sonny Belmonte, who had the votes, to amend the economic provisions of the Constitution. That allowed poor telecom and transport services to fester and gave resonance to Duterte’s promise of “change is coming.” Ironically, therefore, former President Aquino seeded the anti-Yellow counter-revolution of President Duterte.
As for debt condonation, the country missed a historic opportunity when it was included in the Bayanihan II Act but was objected to by the administration on grounds of “moral hazard.” The administration gives out tax amnesties to tax evaders and cash transfers to poor, unemployed people, seeing no moral hazard in them, but it couldn’t imagine the government condoning the debt of farmers impoverished by the very restrictions imposed on them under the CARL.
For the Filipino people, they must realize that they aren’t condemned to relive their Groundhog Day, i.e. of reliving the déjà vu nightmare of having its democratic freedoms curtailed and its lives impoverished. They can do something about it. For the TV anchorman Conner, his selfishness and self-centeredness were causing the time loop. True love broke the time loop.
The pandemic will be a passing affliction for the Filipino people. However, the effects of the twin evils will not be. Not doing anything about these twin evils mean the Filipino people continuously experiencing toxic politics, bad governance, and deteriorating quality of life — our Groundhog Day — forever and ever. Is that the future we want?
Calixto V. Chikiamco is a board director of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis.