COVER STORY

Businesses under Duterte administration: Who gained, who got hurt?

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 29) — At the start of his term, President Rodrigo Duterte promised to topple the oligarchy, venting his ire at tycoons controlling key local industries.

Six years later, did Duterte keep his promise? Or did his influence help others build their empire?

Just a month after securing the presidency in June 2016, Duterte declared war not just against illegal drugs but also against the country's oligarchs. Calling them "monsters", the chief executive vowed to "destroy" them.

Duterte's wrath stemmed from his accusations that personalities leading big businesses were using their money and power to serve their personal interests, with some of them involved in destructive mining activities.

The first businessman who experienced the President's rage was Roberto V. Ongpin.

Ongpin left his post as the chairman and director of PhilWeb Corp and all its subsidiaries after Duterte publicly named him as one of the oligarchs in the Philippines in August 2016, claiming that the former gained his influence in government through his close relationships with former presidents Ferdinand Marcos, Fidel Ramos, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III.

Four years later, despite applying for early renewal, ABS-CBN went off the air in May 2020 after its franchise lapsed.

In July 2020, the market witnessed a major blow against the Lopez family-led company after Congress officially shut down its legislative franchise renewal push, with at least 11,000 workers losing their jobs.

Critics branded this as an attack on press freedom.

Just a few days later, Duterte—without identifying any group—boasted that he was able to "dismatle the oligarchy that controlled the economy of the Filipino people".

READ: Duterte admits using 'presidential powers' vs ABS-CBN

To recall, Duterte said in April 2017 that he would block the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN.

On June 27, 2022—less than a week before he ends his term, Duterte admitted that he "used the presidential powers" against the former broadcast titan, insisting ABS-CBN "never paid taxes"—a claim that had been debunked by the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

"I used the presidential powers to tell Congress that you are dealing with scoundrels and if you continue to kowtow with them, kawawa ang Pilipino," he said during the oath-taking ceremony of newly elected local government officials of Davao City.

Meanwhile, a company owned by former senator and billionaire Manny Villar welcomed 2022 with a provisional authority to operate a digital television broadcasting system in Metro Manila and Mega Manila, a revival of its application filed way back in 2006.

Villar's Advanced Media Broadcasting System (AMBS) would use Channel 16, ABS-CBN's previous digital TV frequency.

The National Telecommunications Commission also said analog TV Channel 2 has been temporarily assigned to Villar's company. The analog channel is scheduled to shut down next year.

The Nacionalista Party, which Villar heads, previously endorsed the tandem of President-elect Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. and Vice President-elect Sara Duterte.

Villar's son Mark, former DPWH secretary, also ran under the senatorial slate of the Marcos-Duterte tandem.

‘Selective outburst’ vs big businesses?

But think tank Infrawatch convener Terry Ridon believes Duterte's approach against big names in the business has been "very selective".

"What Mr. Duterte failed to mention is that his outburst against the oligarchy has been very selective, as he left out other oligarchs who had been very supportive of his government and had been cornering various government projects," he told CNN Philippines.

"This selective outburst has been fleeting at best, particularly against the Ayalas and Manny Pangilinan," Ridon added.

The Ayala clan and tycoon Pangilinan were at the receiving end of Duterte's harsh words amid his issues on their water concession deals with the government.

Pangilinan is the head of the Metro Pacific Group of Companies, with Maynilad as one of its companies. Fernando Zobel de Ayala is the chairman of the Manila Water board and his brother, Jaime, is the vice chairman of the Ayala Corporation's water utility company.

Ridon said that despite all the tirades, the two groups continue to enjoy their dominance and welcomes the new administration "relatively unscathed, if not stronger."

"The Ayalas have firm leadership in the banking sector and it is the prime mover in the growing fintech space, with GCash expanding unmatched by any competitor," he said.

"On the other hand, the MVP Group remains in firm control of its most important concerns. It has maintained leadership in telecoms through PLDT-Smart, tollways through MPTC, power through Meralco, and water through Maynilad," Ridon said.

Who got a boost

Asked who expanded their businesses during Duterte's presidency, Ridon named Dennis Uy's Udenna Group.

"Without question, the Udenna Group under the control of businessman Dennis Uy expanded the most under six years of President Rodrigo Duterte," he said.

Uy, a good friend of President Rodrigo Duterte and a supporter of his 2016 election campaign, has been building his empire for the past years reaching the industries of oil, shipping and logistics, real estate, and property development, education, tourism, and infrastructure.

The Davao-based businessman was also able to cement his presence in the telco sector through third player DITO Telecommunity, which is also backed by China Telecoms.

The Commission on Elections in November 2021 also signed a ₱535.99-million contract with F2 Logistics, a firm tied to Uy, for the distribution of ballots, vote-counting machines, and other supplies for the 2022 general elections.

"With business expansion in very diverse sectors on which it has limited experience and expertise, notwithstanding non-apparent synergies between these interests, the biggest winner in terms of expansion has been no other than Dennis Uy and the Udenna Group," Ridon said.

"However, it remains to be seen whether the group can sustain its rapid expansion beyond the term of Mr. Duterte, given recent reports on its business difficulties," he added.

Meanwhile, Regina Capital Development Corp. Head of Sales Luis Limlingan said players engaged in construction, tourism, and real estate "probably benefited" from Duterte's ambitious "Build, Build, Build" program.

The Duterte administration has poured in billions of pesos in its massive program—with 119 big-ticket projects, hoping to trigger the "golden age of infrastructure".

President-elect Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr., despite his not being shielded from Duterte's controversial remarks about his being a "weak leader", said he would continue and even expand the latter's infrastructure program.

Companies in the tobacco industry, on the other hand, may have suffered after Duterte signed in 2019 a law raising taxes on tobacco products, Limlingan said.

For the past six years, Duterte has made headlines for his controversial remarks against big businesses, seemingly protecting the interests of the Filipino masses despite his rejecting a bill that sought to end contractualization.