Of white knights and dark horses

Its timing could not have been more poignant. Exactly two years or 730 days before the next president of the Philippines assumes office (and the current one steps down), the Supreme Court decided to hand down its verdict on the (il)legitimacy of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

The intent behind DAP was noble enough–to be transparent so that the public could scrutinize what legislators did with their pork barrel allocations. But just as with the ill-fated PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) which was struck down by the high court for being unconstitutional, giving such spending visibility and formality allowed members of the community to challenge it in court. It also forced the administration to justify a practice that had been so pervasive that its illegitimacy now taints nearly every member of Congress that has dipped its fingers in it.

For a president who touted his expertise in scrutinizing the budget as his single greatest achievement in the senate that qualified him to run for the top post, the judgement of the Supreme Court is truly an indictment on his capacity to govern righteously.

So now, with its reputation sullied and its moral ascendancy in tatters, the Aquino administration will have to re-invent its narrative as the president reports to Congress during the State of the Nation Address later this month. For many nothing he does or says will matter. As one cab driver told me when the question of the pork barrel arose, magnanakaw naman sila lahat. Pati si PNoy nagnakaw din ‘yan (They’re all thieves. Even President Aquino himself has stolen).

This could be the political fallout of this entire saga. Faced with a cynical public, the challenge the president now faces is to craft an agenda for the remainder of his term, as he approaches lame duck status next year when the political season comes into full swing. This agenda will have to be inspiring enough to cut through the political noise as hecklers and protesters crowd the airwaves with their own agenda of discrediting or bringing him down.

In truth, nothing much has changed. During the early days of Mrs Arroyo’s presidency, her opponents sought to derail her agenda of building a strong republic (matatag na republica) by questioning her legitimacy and taking advantage of each corruption scandal that arose involving people in her cabinet or first family. Given the circumstances that surrounded her rise to power (the ousting of a popular president through extra-constitutional means), the only way for her to stay the course was with the use of congressional pork barrel to stave off any impeachment complaint.

Now under the current president, pork barreling as practiced before is no longer an option. What assures his survival is the threat of mutually assured destruction. Since both congress and the executive have been mired in controversy with the PDAF and DAP anomalies, both branches feel vulnerable. A third option is also open: the use of BUB or bottom up budgeting, another discretionary fund, under the control of Secretary Mar Roxas of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, to get provincial governors and city mayors on its side.

At the SONA, expect the president to present his legacy in a good light, basking in the glow of the recently concluded World Economic Forum on East Asia where his reform credentials were touted as the source of the country’s newly established reputation as the darling of the international investor community.

To be sure, the contrast between the president’s international and local reputation could not be starker. Abroad, he has been hailed as a leader who has brought political stability and credibility through good governance as evidenced by the signing of a permanent peace accord with Muslim secessionists, but to people on the ground, his political rhetoric concerning the Straight Path (Daang Matuwid) is just that, mere rhetoric.

By their own admission, the holy grail of inclusive growth and development has eluded this administration so far. Any claim that their mantra of good governance means good economics (kung walang kurap, walang mahirap) still rings hollow for majority of Filipinos who have yet to feel the effects of rapid economic growth trickle down to them.

Here again nothing much has changed. There is a long laundry list of unfinished business. From the distribution of land titles under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which the president promised would be completed before he steps down, to the closing of the school building backlog, to the lifting of infrastructure spending to 5% of GDP to increase the flow of private investments, to the financing of tertiary education to provide skills that investors seek, to the achievement of universal health care.

Any significant progress on these fronts would help blunt the attacks directed at him and give people cause to keep the faith. The fact of the matter is the Filipino people are a forgiving lot. If you show them that you are working for their benefit, they may forget the ugly proceedings that have occurred in the realm of politics.

This leads me to the question of succession in 2016. The president in his public addresses has been ramping up rhetoric surrounding the choice facing us, as one of continuing down the straight and narrow path that he has followed or going back to how things were prior to his presidency. The problem now is that the president’s straight and narrow path looks a lot like the old path following revelations of corruption in the use of the DAP and PDAF which he approved.

For me the problem really lies in our quest for a white knight to rescue us from our present troubles. The reform constituency in 2016 won’t opt for the president’s nominee apparent, Secretary Mar Roxas because they already see him and the ruling Liberal Party as being part of the problem. They will seek a new face. Someone like Senator Grace Poe. The 40%+ that elected PNoy in 2010 (whom we might consider to be the reform constituency) will be split between them.

This will allow Vice President Binay, the dark horse of 201o to have a straight path (no pun intended) to the presidency. To many Filipinos, the election of Binay won’t be such a bad thing. This is because most Filipinos are pragmatic. They are not enamored by slogans of hope and change. Like the cab driver I rode with, they recognize that no one who reaches high political office does so without compromising their integrity.

The goal for them is not necessarily doing the right things or doing things right, so much as simply getting things done so that their lives improve. That is all that matters to them in the final analysis. Between a leader who promises reform, but is unable to deliver results that matter to their lives, and one who has demonstrated that capacity in a smaller scale, who do you think voters will select?

In a way, Noynoy the white knight is paving the way for Binay the dark horse because people have come to see that it takes more than pure idealism to produce real results on the ground. It takes more than just a smattering of patronage here and there to address social ills. What it takes is systemic reforms to deal with structural problems, not just cosmetic changes or token arrests. A leader who understands this and is able to do more than reshuffle deck chairs on the Titanic will come up a winner in 2016.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy (www.thecusponline.org) and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

  • UPnnGrd

    A most important lesson is the reminder, even the encouragement…..

    Malacanang can do something unconstitutional (13-o was the vote!!!!)…. the president does not need to get sent to jail even if Malacanang did something unconstitutional.

    President Aquino, of course, wants that he be allowed to do something unconstitutional …. wala namang malisya, he says. ( I don’t think PresiNoy wants BiseBinay to have the power, though…. definitely not BongBong.)

  • cocoy

    My take on this: The decision said: DAP is a program, not a fund. SC lauded it especially the economic gains. What SC disagreed with though, the pooling of savings, the funneling of those savings cross agencies, and the use of unprogrammed funds that wasn’t in the GAA.

    I think this can only be good for reform.

    I don’t know if it is by design or unintended consequence, I think the SC just gave Congress its balls back. “Balance of power restored.” Well, at least it is getting there. GAA can be used to constrict the use of monies/savings/unprogrammed funds by a strong-willed Congress on the Executive. Whether or not Congress takes this route is another matter. As for the SC, I think clearly now, we’re seeing them in action. I think we can agree that we have a functioning SC. DAP and PDAF rulings were fairly handled.

    The SC decision doesn’t prohibit DAP-like programs down the road. I think, now more allowed because depending on how unprogrammed funds are worded/defined in a GAA that flow of money will be on, or off.

    I like your analogy, Doy. I agree with you that there should be specific structural reforms. I think what’s happening is more like Batman Begins, but important that The Dark Knight perfects it. A lot indeed is riding on what’s next. The next president not only needs to perfect reform, but also will appoint at least 10 more SC justices.