IT is about 9:30 on Monday morning, Election Day, and it is a less than ideal time to be writing a column – with the polls only having been open for a few hours, what the country will look like roughly 24 hours from now when people are reading this over their morning coffee is a murky picture at best.
That being the case, I thought it would be interesting to review what I had written after previous elections, and I found this gem, which was published in the May 21, 2013 issue of The Manila Times, shortly after the most recent mid-term elections.
A dubious election brings high expectations for progress
The statements of institutional observers—foreign embassies, business groups, economic analysts, and the foreign media—characterizing the recent elections as generally successful and representing a “fresh mandate” for President BS Aquino 3rd continue to be met with derision from the vast number of people in this country who know better. Both points of view, however, are entirely justified; they simply reflect different perceptions of reality.
No one apart from the Liberal Party leadership and the desperately compromised Comelec that evidently does their bidding actually believes the election was fair and accurate, but maddening as it is, there is little to be gained from belaboring the point from a practical point of view. The modern (i.e., post-1986) history of this country strongly suggests that the results of the election will be accepted in their entirety, save for the handful of inevitable “barricaded in City Hall” dramas that will occur in the next three years as the glacially-slow Comelec attempts to remove a few erroneous or fraudulent winners at the local level as a sop to electoral honesty. And it is just as well that nothing really happens as a result of the current public incredulity and anger over the results of last week’s election, because the alternative—that is, a slate of winners actually reflecting a fraud-free and accurate vote—would be substantially the same as the present fraudulent and error-ridden one.
But rather than being an endorsement of the Aquino regime’s “vision,” which is what the positive statements from some quarters appear to be at face value, the kind words of external observers are actually a strong challenge to the President. What is being said, in effect, is that since there is no effective opposition or a clearly different alternative, the mandate being so desperately sought that it had to be obtained by election engineering on a scale rivaling the best that leaders like Hugo Chavez or Robert Mugabe ever produced will be granted, but the lip service about an “agenda” or “policy direction” will no longer be accepted. Clear and tangible results are expected, and they are expected to be produced within a specific timeframe.
If anyone had been paying attention, they would realize this challenge was already raised well before the election. The troublesome disparity between the Philippines’ apparent economic gains in the Aquino era so far and growing poverty and unemployment has been noted in detail, to the extent that for the time being at least it represents the thumbnail view of the country in the international media. And as part of every one of the recent credit rating upgrades granted to the Philippines, the warning caveat that keeping those improved ratings depends on “the reform momentum” continuing has been included.
Now that the election is over, the challenge has moved quickly from generalities to specifics. Last Friday, the local office of the international analysis and consulting firm, GlobalSource Partners released a report that concluded the Aquino Administration has two years to make good on its “mandate;” by 2015, distraction and uncertainty will set in as the country looks to the 2016 elections, and not much will be accomplished then. It is also worth noting that apart from the 2016 elections, 2015 also marks the end of the Millennium Development Challenge and the beginning of the full-scale implementation of the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA) agreement, neither one of which the Philippines is prepared to face unless the country’s progress is greatly accelerated. Among the key objectives that must be accomplished according to the GlobalSource report is a replacement for the 1995 Mining Act, amendments to the central bank charter, rationalization of fiscal incentives for development investment, and completion of the Bangsamoro Peace Agreement.
Also last week, the Philippines Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) released its legislative wish list for the post-election government, an even more specific set of initiatives than the GlobalSource assessment. The measures the PCCI would like to see enacted are the Philippine Fair Competition Act (HB 4835), which has been stalled in the House of Representatives since last year; the Anti-Smuggling Law, which has been repeatedly introduced and even passed in various forms over the years, to little apparent effect; the creation of a Department of Information and Communications Technology; the proposed Fiscal Incentives Rationalization Act also mentioned in the GlobalSource report; the Customs Modernization Act, a critical measure needed before the full AFTA implementation in 2015; the proposed Land Administration Reform Act; and action on reforms to ease foreign investment restrictions in the Constitution.
By my count that is at least 10 major initiatives; I will leave it to the reader to consider the proposed workload in terms of the output of the last three years of the Aquino Administration, and draw the appropriate conclusions as to the likelihood all or a significant number of these critical reforms will be crossed off the country’s to-do list in the next two years. The Aquino Administration has consistently pleaded for more time and support for its “reform agenda,” and it has now been granted that, if for no other reason than doing so may represent the path of least resistance. One way or another, President Aquino and his ruling party have passed the point of no return, as far the legacy of this Administration is concerned. What happens next will either prove the sincerity and productive intentions of the regime, or reveal what some of us have suspected all along, that it is no better or different than any other that uses clever populist rhetoric and political strong-arm tactics to obtain and hold power for power’s sake.
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In the intervening three years since that was written, only two of the critical initiatives listed came anywhere close to being completed, the Competition Act, or a form thereof, which led to the formation of the Philippine Competition Commission, and a form of the fiscal incentives rationalization measure, but one that everyone hates and views as a serious disincentive to new investment. In addition, those three years also saw the country suffer the tragedy of Typhoon Yolanda, the government’s destructive bungling of the Zamboanga siege, the Mamasapano massacre, a number of significant breakdowns in basic public services, and an escalation of tensions over the South China Sea.
If anything, outside analysts should be pointing out that Aquino and his Liberal Party machine completely blew it; but they’re not, because from their perspective, he did a fine job. GDP growth has been fairly healthy, inflation is low, the country’s credit rating is at least adequate, and the unemployment rate, while not impressive, has gradually improved over the past couple years.
Certainly, most analysts would point out improvements that need to be made—more infrastructure investment, updating the tax system, and pesky leftovers from Aquino’s term like the mining law, and a palatable Mindanao peace deal—but because the Philippines maintains reasonably good numbers by the conventional measures, he is considered to have done a good job. Depending on the enthusiasm of the analyst, that might range from “good enough” to “established a reform legacy.”
Those are very low standards for the country to meet; whether or not the analysts agree with that judgment or not, it makes their apprehension of a Duterte presidency alarming, because they see it as doing what Aquino couldn’t, which is to damage the economy’s stability at a very basic level.
“Don’t screw it up,” is not too much to ask of the new president. The people of this country will want more than that, obviously. Whether anyone is going to be satisfied is something we will have to wait to find out.