President Benigno Aquino 3rd delivered his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, and his carefully prepared script of self-congratulations and motherhood statements will undoubtedly be designated as the priority topic for the rest of this week. As realistic assessments of the current status of the nation, these annual administration pep rallies—whether here, where the Filipino love of acronyms turns the President’s constitutionally required report to Congress into a SONA, or in my home country where it is known as the State of the Union address—are not the least a bit helpful. They are little more than fodder for subjective praise or criticism of the current president to be used by his supporters and detractors until the next hot-button issue grabs the media’s and the public’s attention. I suspect most presidents are well aware of this, which is why they remove anything that could be mistaken for circumspection or humility from their prepared texts.
And why not? If the President was to actually describe the state of the nation in objective terms, we would have already heard the same brief report four times; he’s got to fill a cheerful hour or so to make it worth everyone’s time to clean themselves up for the congressional fashion show, and it only happens once a year. He may as well make the best of it.
It is not necessary for Aquino’s critics to dissect his speech point-by-point, because for one thing, it was not delivered with any real conviction, and for another, the real indictment of his three years in office can be expressed in very simple terms: The Philippines, halfway through the era of Aquino 2.0, is in a steady state, not significantly better or worse than it was three, five or 10 years ago.
A steady state can be defined in one way as the constant probability that various states will be repeated in a stochastic system. And indeed they are repeated in this one. Consider the “major topics” of Aquino’s three years in office: A constant string of scandals for which “probes” are ordered, but which are otherwise never clearly explained or lead to corrective action. Grand initiatives that go no farther than to evaporate in the atmosphere of the venue in which they are announced. Laws that are passed and promptly vanish into the black hole of the Philippines’ judicial system. Election irregularities that are brushed aside. Officials appointed for their political value rather than any discernible skill. Investors frustrated by bureaucratic delays and inefficiency. Poverty and unemployment unchanging, despite constant reassurances about “job creation” and “inclusive growth.” The little details may change from time to time, but the overall picture remains, discouragingly, the same.
But that’s not fair, Aquino’s supporters will say, and they will point to things that have been “achieved” under his “straight path” leadership. The recent wealth-sharing deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is heralded as a breakthrough in the decades-long conflict in Mindanao. The strong performance of the Philippine stock market is presented as evidence of a strong and stable macroeconomic environment, as is the country’s improved sovereign credit ratings, large foreign currency reserves and stable banking system. The rural banking sector will be improved by the expanded opportunities for foreign capital investment. The construction of new casinos indicates revitalized interest in tourism, something that will be helped by the easing of European restrictions against at least one of the country’s airlines. Government revenues are improved by the passage of the Sin Tax bill, and poverty is being reduced by the ever-growing Conditional Cash Transfer program. And if all that weren’t enough already, the supporters of the President will say, his personal integrity as the heir to the Aquino “legacy” and his willingness to scold those who err in his government has instilled a culture of transparency and good governance throughout the country, the overwhelming majority of whose people approve of his performance.
Of course the Aquino administration has accomplished some things; the government is the largest enterprise in the country, and with that many people doing many different activities, some good is bound to inadvertently happen. But every one of Aquino’s “achievements” has fallen short in one way or another. The wealth-sharing agreement amounts to a government surrender to MILF demands, rushed in order to be presented in this year’s SONA and destined to be challenged not only in the legislature and the Supreme Court, but also on the ground by the roughly 50 percent to 75 percent of the people of the Bangsamoro who do not consider the MILF their legitimate representatives. While the President can perhaps claim credit for coincidentally being the leader of the country while external economic factors have led to local market growth, there are now worrying signs of potential asset bubbles, particularly in real estate—a situation that may be aggravated by the enthusiasm for casino development, as that industry is seen as being on a gradual decline globally. Whether or not Philippine Airlines’ renewed access to Europe will have a noticeable impact remains to be seen, but the government’s inability to develop a comprehensive plan for upgrading the country’s laughable air transport infrastructure—the perpetuation, really, of a lack of decisiveness that has been going on for roughly 20 years—tends to suggest that it will not. And finally, despite the budget for the Conditional Cash Transfer program progressively bloating from around P37 billion to around P60 billion for 2014, it has had no discernible impact on poverty incidence in the country.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, and that is the real failure of Aquino leadership. Any reasonable person understands that real lasting changes take time, particularly when the starting point is a particularly dysfunctional system, but in three years we should be able to identify—in tangible, objective, measurable terms—the progress that has been made. Instead we are still waiting for the plan, watching as the administration makes time-worn reactionary rather proactive moves—like the President’s ordering “probes” of the various contrived “scandals” making headlines, as if he didn’t already know they are the antics of squabbling factions within his own regime—and listening as he again tries to pass off undefined buzzwords like “inclusive growth” and “good governance” as policy direction. Just as we heard a little too often from his predecessor, and given the likely alternatives for 2016, just as we will hear from his eventual successor.
At some point, this country will have to have a leader that can break the cycle of mediocrity, but with little more than a year before the country will be consumed by pre-2016 political maneuvering, there is little reason to hope that Mr. Aquino will suddenly become the one. That being the case, maybe the Philippines needs to stop looking to him for solutions, and start looking in the mirror.