TODAY'S commemoration of the proclamation of Philippine independence in 1898 takes on added significance. The 124th anniversary of the event will be the last for President Rodrigo Duterte, who leaves office with unusually high popularity and approval ratings. This day is also a milestone in the countdown to a transition. In just over two weeks, President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. will assume office with a majority mandate, something not seen by an incoming head of the state since the 1960s. But the country's mood seems weighed down by the challenges facing the next government, and contrasts with political developments in the United States, from which this country inherited its democratic system.
First off, the problems carrying over to the next administration remind Filipinos that they are not yet totally free, at least not in some aspects. Covid-19, in particular, may be waning, but people are not yet free of it. Worse, recovery from the economic downturn that the pandemic created is also hampered by the invasion of Ukraine.
The conflict over there complicates efforts here to eradicate poverty. Besides soaring fuel costs, many countries also face a food shortage since Ukraine is a major supplier of wheat. While the local staple is rice, Filipinos will find it difficult to keep food prices low. The added transportation costs have to be shouldered by someone, most likely consumers. Also, the absence of Ukraine's agricultural outputs may increase the demand for several substitutes.
Obviously, managing food prices is relevant to alleviating poverty, which was an aim of the outgoing Duterte government. And had it not been for the pandemic, this administration was on track to dramatically reduce poverty incidence.
Second, the political drama unfolding in the United States sets an interesting backdrop to today's celebrations. Recently, a US House select committee held the first of several public hearings to investigate the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.
Until then, the transition of power in the US had been peaceful. That 244-year record, along with the economic success that it fostered, was among the many reasons why countries like the Philippines looked up to America as a model democracy. Regrettably, Americans remain divided about the outcome of their last elections for president.
For those here watching the American political drama unfold, the January 6 attack serves as a reminder that democracy is a work in progress. It also suggests that sustaining democracy, including the freedoms and privileges that come with that system, requires constant care.
That should not discourage Filipinos from pursuing similar ideals, though. After all, the 1898 proclamation was largely symbolic or a declaration of intent. The Philippines was not actually independent from Spain, the colonial master back then. And not long after the proclamation, Filipinos fighting for independence were recast as insurrectionists by the Americans who became the new rulers.
Even after the Philippines gained independence from the US in 1946, Filipinos commemorated national day on an American holiday, the Fourth of July. That was later moved to June 12 by Diosdado Macapagal in 1962, when he was president.
In retrospect, that change of date also seems symbolic since the US remained influential over many aspects of Philippine politics and society. But just like the 1898 proclamation, the move may have been merely the beginning. Real independence, after all, takes time to flourish.
Of course, independence may mean different things or concepts to Filipinos. A popular view is that independence means crafting foreign policies free from any foreign influence. Yet another idea is viewed in economic terms, like freedom from the shackles of poverty or self-reliance.
Regardless of the differing interpretations of independence, few might dispute the observation that this country still has a long way to go. Filipinos have come a long way, too, since 1898, but there have been setbacks since then.
The important thing is to keep on moving forward. And as seen today in the US Congress investigating the January 6 mob attack, our shared dream of independence founded on democratic ideals is less of a destination and more of a journey.
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