Last of two parts
(Part 1 came out yesterday, Thursday Oct. 15.)
The four remaining traits for the ideal president include two exemplified by past leaders, and two largely missing among them all, but sorely needed by the nation.
GRASSROOTS OUTREACH is, of course, a must for any presidential candidate to have a fighting chance at the hustings. But some have more mass appeal than others. And Ramon Magsaysay (1953-57) and Joseph Estrada (1998-2001) top them all, with the latter still enjoying immense popularity despite his plunder conviction, and the former’s family name winning big votes for his descendants till this day.
The grassroots appeal isn’t just for popularity and votes. Part of presidential leadership is winning broad public support for one’s policies and programs. And often, personal charisma is more persuasive than the soundness of initiatives, especially if these action plans are too complex for ordinary people to understand.
Reaching out to the masses also conveys to the citizenry, especially the poor, that the national leadership and the government cares for them and will address their needs. This isn’t just feel-good public relations, but an essential element of maintaining state authority and influence, as well as the citizenry’s respect for and adherence to law.
Plainly, if the masses don’t feel they can count on the President, then pretty much no one would, since the elite and the middle class have even less need of the government.
Given the macho bias of many Filipinos, UNYIELDING COMMITMENT isn’t the trait the citizenry may expect from presidents of the fairer sex. But tough political will was what Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo displayed, both in taking on rulers over governance issues, and in facing down extra-constitutional assaults on their democratic rule.
With his iron grip on power after two decades of rule, Marcos belittled Corazon Aquino’s challenge and confidently called the 1986 snap elections. Coup plotters also thought she would fold, as did those who tried to unseat Arroyo. Both women withstood their foes and made Philippine democracy stronger.
More important, Aquino and Arroyo maintained their commitment to their reform agenda, despite the subversive threats which could easily have justified abandoning the plans. Aquino maintained her commitment to restoring democracy after one and a half decades of dictatorship, rather than resorting to autocracy in the face of putschist plots.
And in the midst of political crisis and soaring oil prices, Arroyo pursued the crucial 2005 fiscal reforms which ushered in today’s robust economy, public finances and business confidence. She could have delayed the increase of value-added tax to 12 percent and its imposition on fuel and electricity until unrest and crude costs had subsided. But she went ahead, underpinning the subsequent economic surge.
Two traits we wish they had
The last two qualities for the ideal Chief Executive are claimed by those who walked Malacañang’s halls. Every president and presidentiable has promised LIBERATION FOR THE POOR and transparent, OPEN GOVERNANCE. But what the nation has seen falls far short of the promise.
The decline of poverty from a third to a fifth of the population in the past three decades is better than nothing, but pales beside far greater reductions in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam over the same period. What’s worse, the Philippines fell from second most prosperous nation in Asia 60 years ago to a regional laggard till services exports, fiscal reforms, and crucial infrastructure lifted growth and investment over the past decade.
And despite the much greater liberty enjoyed by Philippine media vis-a-vis the press elsewhere in Asia, access to official documents and data remains restricted, with no Freedom of Information Act (FOI) implementing the Constitution’s unequivocal grant of public access to governance information.
To be sure, uplifting the poor and opening up government isn’t just the President’s job, but requires a broad effort by government, business, civil society, and the poor themselves. And there have been some laudable programs on both fronts under various presidents over the decades.
Since 2000, the Kalahi-CDSS initiative for impoverished villages, adapted from Indonesia and expanded under Arroyo, won kudos from the World Bank. So does the conditional cash transfer borrowed from Latin America by the past administration, and expanded by the current one.
On transparency, the Procurement Reform Act of 2003, which mandated online posting of government contracts and civil society representatives on bidding committees, was a big step. Ditto the online posting of the national budget, as well as measures submitted to the Open Government Partnership grouping dozens of nations.
The people must push for action
Still, what has been achieved in poverty eradication and open governance has been unimpressive, if not woefully inadequate. Plainly, Chief Executives have favored urban areas in development policies and funding, including measures to keep crop prices down for city consumers, hurting the countryside, where most of the poor are.
Nor do government leaders readily adopt initiatives to channel more resources to the poor if their moneyed backers object. Thus, Corazon Aquino’s agrarian reform kept big haciendas like her family’s intact through the unjust stock distribution scheme.
As for transparency, politicians invariably call for openness when in opposition, but promptly forget those demands when in power. If candidates truly support open governance, they should make personal pledges to release all material on their decisions and programs, with monetary penalties for failure to fulfill the pledge.
Will presidentiables and the next President stand up and take action for the impoverished, rural as well as urban, and for transparent, accountable governance?
We hope so. But really, if the nation truly wants to liberate the poor and open up government, let’s not depend solely on the President to deliver. The citizenry, especially the wealthy and well-meaning, must not only prod the state, but undertake our own initiatives for the disadvantaged. And the public and the media must repeatedly press for the truth in governance controversies.
To get leaders with PANGULO traits, we the people must ourselves be patriotic, audacious nation-builders, mobilizing up to the grassroots with unyielding commitment to liberate the poor and open up governance.