How Philippine politics needs to move on from its shady past.
In 2016, the Philippines will be commemorating the 30th anniversary of the EDSA people power revolt that toppled Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the country for twenty years. These three decades will be book-ended by two Aquino presidencies: the first representing a transition from dictatorship to democracy, and the second which was billed a transition from impunity to legitimacy.
For many, the period in between the two Aquinos demonstrates the fragility of our democratic institutions under conditions less than ideal. The fragility is owed in large part to the concentration of power in the hands of the ruling elites whose dynastic families pre-date the Martial Law period.
By declaring martial law in 1972, Marcos claimed he wanted to uproot the old order (that these landed elites represented), only to replace them later on with his own cronies and acolytes. Under the first Aquino presidency, many elements of the ancien régime were restored. New and old dynasties were rehabilitated although greater democratic “space” was afforded the media and cause oriented groups to engage in dissent.
This so-called space has not always been free and open. Forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings have been committed with impunity, undeterred by the existence of a Commission on Human Rights whose investigative powers are weak.
Fraud and corruption at a grand scale have persisted, making life difficult for those dependent on government services. The completion of land reform, the centerpiece program of the first Aquino president has still not been achieved, and remains a promise under the second Aquino. Communist insurgents and Muslim separatists have survived despite intermittent efforts to wage an all out war and negotiate a permanent peace settlement. Poverty and unemployment rates refuse to fall substantially despite the country’s new-found economic wings.
Three years ago, the second coming of the Aquinos enamored the country, but with three years remaining in its “second term” of office, many are saying that time is insufficient to finish the job. Indeed, many are seeing this term of office as a brief respite before the same old system of patrimonial plunder and corruption pervades.
The persistence of pork barrel as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement under the nose of the present administration and the long process for prosecuting cases against the senators, congressmen and other people involved in the PDAF scam uncovered by the Commission on Audit and exposed by whistleblowers puts into doubt the durability of changes initiated by it.
The Aquinos have always sought to restore the Philippine house in order after a long period of serious erosion. They have always tried to reinforce it by proving that the Philippine brand of democracy could work, if managed with integrity. They represent the best and most noble elements of the political elite, a throwback to an era which, as sociology professor Randy David suggests, was governed by a gentleman’s code consisting of “moral restraints (e.g., delicadeza and sense of honor) that used to bind rulers.”
To a certain extent the administration has succeeded in returning us to that imagined mythical chivalrous era, which is why the Aquino brand still defies gravity. Unfortunately, by virtue of this conservative inclination, President Aquino has resisted the urge to weaken the structural foundations of cacique democracy and construct a new modern political architecture.
Earlier in his term, he tried creating a Truth Commission to go after his predecessor Mrs Arroyo, only to have it struck down by the Supreme Court. He then proceeded to go after Ombudsman Gutierrez and Chief Justice Corona using all the powers of influence over congress which eventually caused the former to abdicate and the latter to be removed from office.
His appointees to the Commission on Audit and Office of the Ombudsman have helped to uncover anomalous transactions, which have sparked outrage among the urban chattering classes and led to widespread protests. It is becoming quite clear that the moral restraints that Prof David spoke of have long since ceased to bind the behavior of our “honorable” representatives. And yet as David states we are still stuck with a “ a premodern political system that is basically unchecked by the rule of law.”
So far the Aquino government has focused on improving the managerial aspects of governance–by instituting operational reforms in the way public works, public finance and administration is conducted. He has done so while working within the current framework, which suffers from serious legal and statutory constraints.
He has so far shied away from substantive reforms to the legal and political architecture which would mean adopting executive and congressional compensation programs that address the incentive problem in elected and senior public officials (past reforms have focused on raising the pay of rank and file public employees creating pay compression with that of middle to senior level officers). It would include strengthening the power of agencies whose job it is to police public officials and guarantee transparency and accountability, and would mean enacting safeguards to the freedom of information and providing protection to whistleblowers.
President Aquino has found himself at the helm of this giant enterprise known as the national government, wielding the levers of power that dispense political patronage. He has sought to show us what it would look like to have an honest person pulling on these levers. By lifting the veil on the inner workings of the state, the public who delight in receiving gifts from pandering politicians, now stand aghast as they view the actual process behind the facade. They now see just how messy and dirty it is, and want it fixed.
The problem now confounding our political operators is just how much of their demands to take on board. Just like a family crime syndicate that has prospered so much that it can now opt to turn a new leaf and become legit, the nation now finds itself at a crossroads. It has to decide where to go. Channeling state funds to political parties to support a new breed of politicians and professionally run national campaigns, with strong mechanisms to enforce limits on political spending and restrictions on sources of campaign donations is the way modern political systems work. The old way is to use patronage and plunder to amass resources to retain high office.
The choice could not be clearer. We either stick with the old ways and try to make the best of it by harking back to a chivalrous code, that no longer binds people’s behavior, or we adopt new ways of doing things based on a new legal framework and policy settings that promote a culture of meritocracy in our public and political institutions.
This limbo that the Philippines finds itself in, stuck in between a feudal past and a modern future is nowhere to be for a country with the skills, talents and resources that it has. It is now time for the second Aquino to complete the process of going legit, which is now nearly thirty years in the making.