THE drama over who may be running for President in 2016 might seem like the most important topic of public discussion in the Philippines now, but as a rule, domestic elections mean very little to the outside world.
There are a couple reasons for that. For one thing, the Philippines is simply not that important on a global scale; it is not a high-profile geopolitical actor, not particularly identified as a source of any high-demand commodity, and too often requires outside assistance to cope with natural disasters to be considered self-reliant, a notion that is only reinforced by the fact that the country’s most successful business sectors are exported labor and business process outsourcing services.
The other reason is the intricacies of domestic politics are not well understood, unless an outside observer makes an effort to keep up with local media, which most do not. Because local news media produces news for a local audience, the news that filters to the outside world tends to rely heavily on government sources, which in turn tend to be extremely self-serving. The reports of President BS Aquino 3rd’s “reforms” and “successes in reducing corruption” that were published by foreign media for years were not arrived at through analysis, but by repeating whatever his dim-witted spokespeople said.
As long as there was some vaguely corroborating information—primarily in the form of positive economic indicators—that was as much as anyone needed to know about Pinoy politics. The question of “who would continue Aquino’s reforms” from 2016 was considered in a superficial way, but since the country lacks an effective, visible opposition offering a distinct alternative, who his successor would be was rather immaterial, so long as the general trend of the economy continued.
Over the past couple of months, however, the general trend has changed, showing a slowdown. While that has not yet caused the outside world to comprehensively revise its rather inaccurate opinion of BS Aquino, it does direct more attention to who might succeed him, because that person will be expected to “put the economy back on track.” That implies some changes in the business and investment environment. Although foreign investors and business interests can’t influence the outcome of the elections by supporting one candidate or another (at least, they’re not supposed to), they should be interested in what the economic prospects are under the different possible scenarios.
Sadly, none of the prospective candidates so far—Vice President Jejomar Binay, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, Senator Grace Llamanzares, Duke of Davao Rodrigo Duterte, and Senator Francis “Chiz” Escudero – have shown any interest so far in suggesting anything that might be construed as a platform or a plan for governance, instead leaving the media and the public to debate whether the country would be better off under an accused embezzler, a public relations punchline, an American whose best qualification is that she is the adopted daughter of someone else who was unqualified for the presidency, a violent Communist sympathizer, or some guy who married an actress.
The longer the candidates and the media continue to focus on personalities rather than substance, the more the country’s post-election economic prospects will degrade. Economic activity as the election approaches will slow—yes, election period-related consumption is likely to provide a bump to GDP numbers, but businesses will hold off expansion plans as long as the outcome of the elections is uncertain, and that will drag the economy in ways that actually matter. The current downward trend is likely to continue; GDP might be a little higher, but manufacturing and exports won’t necessarily follow. Foreign investment certainly will have no reason to increase, as investors will not be inclined to put their money into an uncertain situation.
Whether one of the current crop of candidates has the intelligence and courage to break out of the pattern and start discussing issues rather than his or her competitors remains to be seen. The past quarter-century of the country’s history suggests that is unlikely; even more unlikely is the prospect of the media breaking its addiction to cheap sensationalism and forcing the candidates to discuss adult topics. Instead, we can probably look forward to seeing most of the gains of the past five-plus years evaporate, leaving the next president—who is certain not to be some kind of economic wunderkind, given who’s expressed an interest in the job—with the task of trying to mount some kind of recovery.