Strong president can become the motive power of reform

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WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM OUR FACEBOOK GENERATION

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In the mature states, representative institutions may depend on disciplined parties, the rule of law, and constitutional guarantees. But in the still-tentative states of the emerging world, the effectiveness of government depends on the character and competence of the individuals who lead it.

Given the extreme factionalism of national politics, we cannot easily develop cohesive parties. Over the foreseeable future, reform must become the personal commitment of a transformational President and his inner Cabinet. Finding—and electing—such a leader is our social task over these next 20 months.

The Facebook generation
This will be difficult; but I don’t think it beyond the capability of the Facebook generation that powers the “anti-pork” movement agitating our political class.

Until now we Filipinos have had to choose our political leaders from the electoral lists the pols draw up—even if we have often wished to vote for “None Of The Above.”

Now the Facebook generation has found in the Internet institution an electronic forum open 24/7 for popular debates, consultations, demonstrations, and policy decisions—a modern instrument of direct democracy in the age of mass politics.

The Facebook generation has shown its potential in the “Million People March” they conjured up through the social media in Metro Manila and other BPO cities. I expect this first generation of Filipinos attuned to the technological revolution to become a potent force in civil society.

Already retired Chief Justice Reynato Puno suggests a “People’s Initiative” may convene constitutionally a “People’s Congress” that would abolish the “pork barrel” and “check abuses of Congress in its exercise of its power over the purse.”

President still dominates state
In my view, a strong president—backed by a cohesive civil society— can become the motive power of reform. The Philippine presidency has powers enough to strengthen state capacity and focus our economy on growth.

Consider how easily President Ramos (1992-98) dismantled the PLDT monopoly, deregulated the downstream oil industry, and privatized Metro Manila’s water system.

It is the will that has often been lacking in our rulers. We need leaders who will embrace political change and offer our people inspiring visions of what our nation can become.

Despite the limitations on its power imposed constitutionally after 1986, the presidency still dominates government—through its vast powers to appoint bureaucrats and justices, set the Congress agenda, and “realign” the budget. Even the no re-election rule gives a president virtual free rein during his six years in office.

In practice, the president can deprive any sitting official—whether national or local—of the public funds due his office. By manipulating budget releases, the president could disarm his political enemies while rewarding his friends. All this power a transformational Executive can place in the service of reform.

Left out of growth miracle
Left out of East Asia’s “growth miracle” of 1965-1990, our country has become a relative backwater in the fastest growing region. We have greater poverty, more malnutrition, more children out of grade school than comparable neighbor-economies. We also have higher joblessness, more under-employment, and more severely skewed wealth and income.

In recent months, macroeconomic management has increased in its efficiency—enough to merit three global credit-rating upgrades. But Indonesia still receives ten times more in foreign direct investment than we do.

As a result, the World Bank foresees little relief for our jobless and underemployed people. It projects that even if the economy sustains its growth rate of over 7 percent, they would still reach 12.4 million by 2016 from today’s 10 million.

Special interests rule
Only now are we coming to realize that our economic weaknesses have a political root. In the World Bank’s view, our basic weakness “stems from the effective control by interest groups of the state machinery, such that rule-making and enforcement serves not the general welfare but particular interests.”

A socially irresponsible Congress is only one result of our failure until now to develop a stronger sense of national feeling. Senate President Drilon and Speaker Belmonte themselves count at least 186 laws that offer “redundant and overlapping” incentives to favored industries. The University of the Philippines academic Renato Reside estimates these unnecessary incentives to cost government at least P100 billion yearly.

The social critic Solita Monsod quotes Justice Antonio Carpio as noting the state’s royalties from the mining industry make up only 2 percent—yes, two percent—of the value of these minerals at their source. The recent upward adjustments on tobacco and alcohol taxes took 14 years to pass.

The difference between our country’s potential and actual tax revenue is well over 40 percent. In Singapore this “tax gap” is less than 10 percent.

Last March, President Aquino himself had occasion to tell the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry that, of its 207 member companies, half did not file tax returns; and 23 percent did not even have tax identification numbers.

‘Pockets of efficiency’
To manage interest groups, we need to strengthen our key political institutions—the civil service, the electoral system, our political parties, BEGIN ITALSandEND ITALS the checks and balances of the three branches of government.

The first step in building state capacity is for the President to yield to the Civil Service Commission the power to appoint all civil servants below undersecretary rank.

We should reexamine the strength and scope of state power, so that we can focus government on its most important tasks. The rest it should devolve to subsidiaries, corporate bodies, and civil-society groupings.

Latin American modernizers have found what Brazilians call “pockets of efficiency” useful. These are agencies outside the civil service system and charged with specific tasks; their officials are without tenure and their functions are insulated from legislative pressure.

The BIR and the Bureau of Customs, the Ombudsman institution, and large-scale public works ventures should qualify as pockets of efficiency.

A proposal for a National Tax Authority has been in Congress since the year 2000.

To raise the electoral process above partisan politics, we might do as Mexico did: hand over control of the system to a citizens’ council, whose independence is constitutionally guaranteed.

Political power of markets
The economy we must focus on its core strengths. We’ve neglected industry; yet exporting workers instead of products exacts tremendous social costs. Land reform we must complete, while recognizing it no longer suffices to soothe rural unrest. Our neglect of agriculture we must redress; we can become a food basket for East Asia’s markets.

The power of the open economy we must also bring to bear on our political system. Free markets nurture civil society and stimulate popular demands for the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

Opening up the economy will also confront our oligarchy with global competition. The entry of multinationals and joint ventures—apart from bridging our finance-capital gap—will open the closed markets its conglomerates enjoy.

Our commitments to the WTO, Asean, the East Asian Economic Grouping, and APEC we should use just as Italy did its commitments to the EU—to infuse production discipline and competitive fervor into the economy.

It is clear the political leaders of our time are letting us down badly. The Facebook generation—as the inheritors of our future—must right the balance and give our nation a fresh start.

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2 Comments

  1. it is very difficult to look for the right person to lead this country, or for that matter, all countries to travel in the right direction. Now we need a leader who is well educated, God fearing, experienced, hardworking, humble and honest, among his or her qualities Why the stringent requirements? Because the Presidency is now a very complex job requiring lots of qualities and character to succeed. No country especially the Philippines can survive if we continue to put into office the likes of the current President B.S. Aquino who has practically no qualities and character mentioned herein. Putting amateurs to lead will invite disasters.