FITCH-owned BMI Research twice sounded a muted alarm this week about the political atmosphere in the country, first when it lowered the “political risk” score for the Philippines to 63.5 (out of 100) from the 64.6 score it had previously assigned the country, and again when it cautioned that political instability may hamper efforts at tax reform.
In BMI’s view, recent political shake-ups, such as the arrest of Senator Leila De Lima and the ousting of several opposition senators from their committee positions, have aggravated tensions that were already on the rise due to friction between President Rodrigo Duterte and the Catholic Church, his “non-adherence to established intergovernmental commitments,” and other growing political divisions.
BMI’s assessment was optimistic. Things are actually much worse than they appear.
To be fair, most of the legwork for BMI’s analysis was probably done a couple of weeks ago, and so the latest spanners in the cogs likely were not taken into account: Perfecto Yasay’s ejection from his post as Foreign Affairs secretary, the unusually long and contentious hearings by the Commission on Appointments over Gina Lopez’s position as head of the DENR, the apparent uptick in rebellious violence in Mindanao, and signs that China may be trying to provoke new tensions in the seas around the Philippines.
Nevertheless, the research group was unaccountably giving the current leadership too much credit. Just eight months into its term, it has already gotten sidetracked by scandal and alarm. The tax reform program that BMI (and many other analysts) refer to in such approving tones should have been passed by now, but it has hardly been touched. Although a great many plans have been made, the process for actually building any of the promised infrastructure projects has yet to begin in earnest. Discussions with the communist rebellion were abruptly called off, and there has been no progress whatsoever on the very much still open question of Bangsamoro autonomy.
Instead, the government has continued to focus on its problematic—if not actually completely futile—“war on drugs,” railroading the reimposition of the death penalty through the legislature, and large-scale controversies apart from Leila DeLima, such as the Fontana-Bureau of Immigration bribery case and the various alleged transgressions of the Mighty Tobacco Co. There are dozens of other smaller distractions as well, too numerous to list but which may be best exemplified by the palace’s continuing struggle to develop an efficient, coherent public information framework that doesn’t find itself at frequent odds with the media.
It’s not that the government shouldn’t be addressing these matters—it should, as efficiently and fairly as it can—but there is a growing sense that the Duterte regime is just a different troupe of actors in the same stage show that’s played in the Philippines for a long time: One in which any notion of a comprehensive, sustained policy thrust exists only in speeches, and the most productive actions of government agencies are short-term initiatives that at best are carried out in silos, or worse, work at cross-purposes.
What is particularly distressing, and may be a much bigger source of “political instability” than BMI realizes, is that so far, the Duterte administration has avoided dealing with or even expressing policy intentions toward the fundamental causes of much of the visible instability. The biggest problems in this country are caused by the dysfunctional structure of its political and management systems.
A good example of the dysfunction in the political system is the self-destructive way confirmation of presidential appointments is handled; the Philippines may be unique in allowing Cabinet secretaries to serve for months before the Commission on Appointments even takes up the matter of their confirmation or rejection. Without passing judgment on the two stars of the week, the unfortunate Perfecto Yasay and the potentially unfortunate Gina Lopez, it is frankly ludicrous that their jobs are at risk more than eight months after they started. Whether the CA was right or not in the case of Yasay, the Department of Foreign Affairs is now in disarray, and it wouldn’t need to be if a little bit of practical reason was applied to the process, and the country’s leadership realized that the endorsement of the people by way of the CA was important at the beginning of a department head’s tenure, not partway through.
As an example on the management side, the country struggles with worsening traffic in every populated area, and yet is still mystified why the simultaneous existence of four or five meddlesome agencies isn’t producing a solution.
A large part of the support that Duterte rode into office was based on his promises to change the way things are done in the Philippines, but just as every one of his predecessors did, Duterte has quietly dropped the rhetoric about making real change—liberalizing the economy, changing to a federal system of government, streamlining agencies—and instead has chosen to simply swim in the existing political and administrative bog.
In retrospect, perhaps that’s why BMI Research made a rather mild warning; for the most part, the Duterte era so far looks a lot like the Aquino era or the Arroyo era, and since everyone should therefore know what to expect, the risk that the end result will be worse than mediocre is actually not that great. Good enough for BMI Research, but everyone who lives and works here is hoping for something a little better than that.