The policy elite continue to give President Aquino the benefit of the doubt as a stream of bad news regarding the state of the nation hit the headlines in the last couple of weeks.
A series of indicators seemed to point to the deteriorating state of governance in the country. Despite all this, expert commentators continue to give consideration to what they see as the genuine desire of the president to steer the ship of state safely through the rough seas. In the space of a few weeks, a number of surveys uncovered a not too rosy picture of the country. In quick succession the following came up:
- the Bangko Sentral survey of consumer expectations showed that consumer confidence declined markedly in the first quarter,
- the Hong Kong based political and economic risk consulting group PERC found that foreign executives felt corruption in government had increased,
- the quarterly survey of the Social Weather Station saw the net approval rating of the president take a steep dive, and
- the Social Weather Station quarterly survey on hunger saw hunger increase with one in five now reporting they have experienced some form of hunger.
To the policy elites, these reports would certainly be disconcerting as the consensus has formed that the actions taken by the Palace have allowed the country to turn a corner. Take for instance the PERC survey. Ateneo economist Cielito Habito asks whether corruption is really worse, stating that the sentiment of domestic investors who possess more complete information regarding the state of affairs in the country counts more than the views of foreign players. Domestic investments have surged under the new administration. He provides a plausible reason for the worsening perception of foreign investors identifying the senate hearings on corruption in the military in the first quarter which may have tarnished the entire government’s overall reputation in the eyes of these executives.
On the fall of the president’s trust ratings, UP economist Solita Monsod countered over the weekend that a number of appointments bode well for the president’s agenda on good governance. These good appointments may be just a fluke as the underlying current that runs through them may be factional infighting among his political supporters, but never mind, she says, as a win is a win.
On the rise of hunger, sociologist Randy David poses one possibility (remote though it seems) that the self-reporting on hunger may have gone up as many of those surveyed mistook the SWS interviewers for public social workers who were reportedly screening households for the conditional cash transfers program that would entitle them to receive monthly allowances. As for the fall in consumer confidence, this was attributed to external factors stemming from the uprising in the Middle East and North Africa affecting prospects of foreign nationals working in the area.
Just a few months back, the president was claiming credit for the decline in poverty incidence saying that his reforms had already borne fruit. Never mind that what was being reported was the effect of reforms instituted by the previous administration.
Now it seems in a bid to counter the negative news, the president has been going out on the offensive running after the people close to his immediate predecessor. The impeachment of Ombudsman Merci Gutierrez has occupied much of the news of late. Her trial in the senate will no doubt hug the headlines in the weeks to come. Never mind that her term is expected to expire anyway.
When the proceeds of the sale of the confiscated property of Lt Gen Ligot was handed over to the government, the palace was quick to claim it as an endorsement of the integrity of the president. Never mind that this was the result of the actions of the lady whom they had just impeached in Congress through their party mates.
The tax fraud case filed against former presidential son Rep Mikey Arroyo is currently capturing media attention with continuing revelations of properties he is alleged to have left out in his tax declarations. While palace officials were quick to deny this move was a form of political harassment, Conrado de Quiros who many regard as a surrogate mouthpiece for the administration provided a reality check by claiming that the former presidential son was indeed targeted for this kind of treatment.
While these sorts of exposes and trials make for good political theater, allowing the administration to score political points, they do come at a cost. The cost is that the legislative agenda of the government will come to a standstill during the impeachment trial. Also there is a tendency to give the rulers a free pass on the more crucial bits of governance that go unnoticed.
Take the rise of poverty (by the proxy measure of hunger) for instance. This could have been a result of the phaseout of the grains program run by the National Food Authority. None of the policy elites want to acknowledge this because they are almost ideologically opposed to it. Yet this would explain why poverty rose in Luzon while it declined slightly in the rest of the country where the conditional cash transfers were mostly targeted.
As food inflation rises resulting from global production shortfalls exacerbated by the price of oil and transport, the timing could not be worse for the government which has withdrawn its support for the grains importation program. It is reported today that a possible rice shortage may be in the offing over the coming months.
At some point, the tendency to blame the administration immediately preceding it will become old hat. The current rulers will have to take ownership for the current state of affairs. While the policy elite might continue to give this president the benefit of the doubt, some time in the future there will be a reckoning. If the negative indicators continue to point down, that moment might come sooner than expected.