Ritzie Lao The Philippines faces a critical juncture in its overall economic state. As the nation contends with a burgeoning transport crisis, Filipino commuters find themselves under immense strain. Simultaneously, the specter of a looming economic crisis casts a shadow over the country's future. Yet, amid these pressing challenges, a paradox emerges – the very figure entrusted with navigating the nation's course appears to be steering not only the ship of state but also his own wheels towards lavish foreign travels.

Cartoon by Gabriel Bazan

Bongbong Marcos is set to allocate a substantial budget of P1.408 billion for his domestic and international travels in the upcoming year, as stipulated by Republic Act No. 11975, also known as the General Appropriations Act of 2024, which he endorsed on December 20 at Malacañang. This represents a notable increase of 58% compared to his 2023 travel budget of P893.57 million. While the majority of Filipinos grapple with the rising prices of essential commodities, including rice, a staple in Filipino households that remains far from the promised 20 pesos per kilo—a mere 6% increase is being proposed for the budget allocated to the agriculture sector. The allocation is set to rise from the current year's P186.54 billion to P197.84 billion in 2024, with P167 billion earmarked for the Department of Agriculture (DA), an agency where Marcos concurrently holds the position of Agriculture secretary.
   While the rationale behind positioning this initiative as a means to advance the Philippines as an “investment hub” aligns with the administration's agenda, the disjunction between rhetoric and reality remains palpable. A press release from the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) in June asserted that Bongbong Marcos' overseas ventures had purportedly attracted a staggering “P3.48 trillion in investments.” However, the subsequent revelation by the Department of Trade and Industry the following month paints a different picture that indicates that only approximately “$88 million of these investment pledge” from the president's foreign travels are anticipated to materialize in 2023. This dissonance underscores a noteworthy discrepancy in the allocation of resources, exemplified by a substantial 58% augmentation in the president's travel funds, juxtaposed against a marginal 6% increment for the agriculture sector – a sector facing increasing challenges, thereby revealing a potential misalignment in the government's expenditure priorities. Contrastingly, beyond the ongoing economic crisis, a crucial aspect demanding attention is the transport crisis, which plays a significant role in scrutinizing the government's policies perceived as anti-poor and anti-people. The decision to phase out traditional jeepneys has reverberating consequences for both drivers and commuters that contributes to a broader transportation crisis characterized by overcrowded public transport and inadequate infrastructure. Additionally, the reduction in transportation options and the subsequent increase in fares will exacerbate the already challenging experiences of the public. Moreover, progressive groups like PISTON vehemently oppose the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP), expressing concerns that it will displace thousands of drivers and operators from their livelihoods. As the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) announces the conclusion of the franchise consolidation process on December 31, unconsolidated units may continue to operate select routes until January 31. Instead of allocating funds to rehabilitate jeepneys, support drivers, and enhance the transport sector, the focus appears to be on extensive travel, with limited progress in achieving targeted investments. This impending crisis is poised to have a profound effect on the nation's transportation system and economy, directly affecting an estimated 28.5 million commuters. The budget designated for presidential travel constitutes a component of the overall government budget. An augmentation of this particular budget implies a potential reduction in funds available for other critical sectors, such as healthcare, education, and social welfare programs. Such a scenario can have a direct impact on the quality and accessibility of these services for the general population. The financial resources allocated for presidential travel could be redirected to address urgent social issues, including poverty alleviation, infrastructure development, and public health initiatives. Moreover, an escalation in spending on travel amid underfunded basic social services may exacerbate prevailing social inequalities. The repercussions of inadequate social services are likely to be borne disproportionately by marginalized and economically vulnerable segments of the population. With both increasing prices of goods and services, these economic pressures compound the difficulties faced by Filipino commuters and a reality that highlights the disparities between the elite's access to travel funds and the struggles of the Filipino masses. While the president plans to embark on more travels next year, it impacts the daily lives of citizens that mirrors the challenges faced by ordinary commuters and stands in juxtaposition to Bongbong Marcos' frequent travels funded by taxpayers. Thus, this poses a question: In a nation grappling with economic inequities and crisis, what price are the citizens paying for these lavish foreign travels?