THE pleasant surprise about this week’s elections is how well the entire exercise was carried out; against the scale of the usual Philippine experience, they were relatively efficient and trouble-free, with most people, even those who were understandably disappointed by the results, accepting the outcome with courtesy.
The bad news is that even under the best-case scenario, the efficiency of national administration, which is already less than impressive, is going to take a turn for the worse, at least for a period of time. For a year or two, and perhaps for the entire term of president-elect Duterte, the role of local governments is going to be much more critical in keeping up economic and social progress than anyone realizes.
The problem is a practical misunderstanding of the way Philippine democracy works in a broad sense. The reason that soon-to-be former president BS Aquino 3rd is deemed to have been a successful president despite making a total mess of almost everything he personally got within a hundred yards of is that, whether they understood it or not, when Filipino voters elected him, they elected an entire national organization. Being the only effective political party in the country, the Liberal Party, either directly or through alliances, has a framework that extends through most of the country, all the way down to street level in most places.
It makes for an interesting paradox – the less personally relevant the president is, the stronger his support. Few could argue that there has been a president any less relevant than BS Aquino, and yet his position was never even vaguely threatened. That is why analysts and business groups were virtually unanimous in their pre-election opinions that either a Mar Roxas or Grace Poe presidency would be best for the country in terms of maintaining macro-level stability, because they would just be replacement cogs in the same tried and tested machine.
Rodrigo Duterte doesn’t have that sort of machine; having spent a couple of decades focusing solely on the job of being a mayor and making it a point to not give a damn about national-level politics, he is entirely on his own, relying solely on his personal appeal to elicit cooperation. That might work just fine for the guys standing on the street corner with their sandos pulled up to expose their beer bellies, or people who can type faster than they think on Facebook, but that’s not going to work for everyone who is still a part of that country-scale machine which, if anyone bothered to notice, is still as entrenched as it was before the election, if not more so now.
This is exactly the sort of unhandy situation that the once-heralded former mayor of Jakarta Joko Widodo is encountering – and largely failing to handle effectively – as President of Indonesia. What has happened there – and as sure as the sun rises, will happen here, too – is that so much time and effort have to be expended by the President in trying to build up that framework from scratch that bigger policy aims cannot be advanced, and even the day-to-day function of government begins to bog down, because the President, no matter how many messianic attributes his adoring fans ascribe to him, cannot be everywhere and do everything at once.
For local governments, however, at least for those inclined to do their part to lead and encourage real progress in their bailiwicks, an otherwise unhelpful state of affairs presents an opportunity to do just that. A lack of firm direction from the top – ‘firm direction’ in this case meaning a coherent policy approach throughout the levels of government, rather than simplistic directives like “no loud music after 10 o’clock” – gives local governments a great deal of flexibility to chart a course appropriate to their constituencies; and in doing so, they can actually help advance national policy by presenting the administration with faits accompli that fill gaps a President who is somewhat politically isolated can’t manage.
In most cases, an effective approach for local governments would be to simply pursue scaled versions of initiatives that have already worked. For example, a city or municipality could develop local enterprise zones, small-scale public-private partnership projects, or local tourism infrastructure. With the opening up of the Southeast Asia region through the Asean free trade agreement and the broader Asean integration, larger LGUs (provinces and cities) can promote their unique products directly to foreign markets.
Granted, almost anything an LGU does along these lines will have to pass through the firewall of national-level regulation, but this is one aspect in which the country’s particular choice for President should be an advantage; as a mayor, the new President is presumed to have a good understanding of local government needs. On top of that, he has publicly espoused the idea of federalism – and has consistently done so for a number of years – and while the country is far from being evolved enough for that to be a good idea yet, one could assume his administration would be tolerant of productive local initiatives, and even inclined to support them.
Local government stakeholders should take the fresh mandate for what it is – an expression of confidence from constituents – and make the most of it before it fades, because it will be quite some time before the old machinery that simply passed initiatives down from on high works that way again. And if the country has made any real progress in this election, perhaps it never will.