Election 2013

Reformists and Populists

The debate over policies needed to make permanent progress achieved under President Aquino’s rubric of Daang Matuwid (the Righteous Path) has not happened yet and perhaps never will.

Reformist measures are best kept close to one’s chest, not announced until they are actually implemented. That is because these measures often involve some pain to be borne by some section of the community, which essentially leads to votes being lost rather than won. In contrast populist measures are worth shouting from the rooftops since they appeal to voters but don’t necessarily make for good policies once in office. That is the quandary facing the administration as it campaigns for its senators for the coming election.

Just cast your gaze on the Team Patay (Death) slogan foisted by the clergymen against the administration’s ticket in protest over the passage of the reproductive health bill which the government facilitated over the church’s objections. Team PNoy candidates act surprised although they could’ve seen it coming. One way for them to take the heat away from this issue however would be to focus on their plans to introduce reforms to expand insurance coverage and make health care more affordable using the taxes to be raised from the sin tax law which was another major landmark piece of legislation the government achieved.

But they have for the most part refrained from outlining a vision for the health care system, allowing other players in the UNA coalition to establish their own credentials in the area. By ceding control over the health debate, the administration is underplaying the tremendous hand it holds–it alone can credibly put forward a detailed, costed program of health reform that would lead to millions more Filipinos enjoying better benefits from its health spending.

This is particularly disadvantageous to candidates like Risa Hontiveros who is outside the winner’s circle, given her stand on the reproductive health issue. Her candidacy could be given a significant boost if she were to be identified as the future architect of health reform in the senate. Ms Hontiveros should be given the role of explaining the planned reforms to come in this area and be given a policy team to help scope out what those reforms should be. Instead, due to the lack of such assistance, her policy pronouncements in health have necessarily been vague and non-committal.

Secondly, consider the conditional cash transfers program, which the present administration considers its “cornerstone” in its fight against poverty. The World Bank recently released a report on the first stage of the program. Its findings were for the most part positive-places that were targeted by the program were found to have significantly higher levels of school participation and better health outcomes compared to similar areas that were not targeted. In fact, in areas where the program was not so successful, e.g. maintaining retention among older age groups of children, the study suggested extending the program beyond the current five years.

This would provide a solid basis for the administration to claim credit and to bat for a continued ramping up of the program, but there hasn’t been a party-wide celebration of the findings, or a vigorous endorsement of it. Instead, the stage has been vacated to departmental technocrats to extol its virtues against its critics in the UNA coalition who have maintained the old tired line that it has been nothing but a dole out.

One candidate cunningly sought to depict the government’s prioritising of the conditional cash transfers program as misplaced,  saying it could have instead spent the money on free college education and skills training–quite a clever way to wedge college student voters against the disenfranchised indigent households across the country.

Thirdly, in making the anti-corruption and transparency measures adopted by the administration more durable, the government has failed to articulate a program of action towards this end. This is partly due to the fact that its path towards greater openness has itself suffered setbacks. Its Open Budget Index score in the latest report of the International Budget Partnership fell by seven points, meaning Filipinos have been denied full access to budget information. Despite overtaking Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia in Transparency International’s corruption perception rankings, it has slipped two notches in the World Bank’s Cost of Doing Business report.

The government should be arguing from a position of strength in this area given the president’s reputation as an honest leader in contrast to the scandals involving the use and abuse of pork and privilege by those opposite. Team PNoy ought to be taking a suite of reforms to the electorate, including such measures as the Freedom of Information, Whistle Blower Protection, strengthening the powers of the ombudsman, fiscal incentives rationalisation, budget sustainability and transparency reforms. Instead, its campaign has failed to create any daylight between it and the UNA coalition with regard to these issues.

Again, this is in part due to the fact that enacting such reforms runs counter to the populist mode of campaigning it is forced to undertake. Championing the cause of fiscal transparency, openness and sustainability would run counter to the many proposed pieces of legislation that candidates under the administration are espousing at the moment.

I could go on. The plans for generating employment following the release of the latest jobs figures which show fewer people finding work compared to last year ought to spur a debate around the best way to promote inclusiveness in a nation that continues to post robust GDP growth figures. Instead the debate is confined to small minded livelihood programs (despite revelations of pork going to dubious organisations connected to legislators). There really isn’t a debate over how to transform the industrial mix of the nation or on how to direct foreign remittances to productive employment generating activity.

The people within the campaign probably feel that the need to elevate the debate is unnecessary given that its candidates seem to be improving in the polls. The UNA coalition seems to have suffered a few setbacks of its own given the negative press surrounding some of its principals, the ones which I have alluded to above. Yet, recent headlines involving Sabah and the president’s handling of it might cause some damage to its ticket.

To provide its candidates with a greater edge, the administration needs to arm them with solid, well-thought out programs that would demonstrate its seriousness in cementing its reform agenda. Rather than running a race based on populist rhetoric, its candidates need to be equipped with enough detailed policy advice to articulate what these reforms mean and how they would work once enacted. Rather than the airy-fairy platitudes and motherhood statements that they currently mouth, the campaign needs to bring the exalted righteous path down to earth.

If it does this, then voters might not feel the need to hedge their bets with the opposing side; they will provide the government with the majority it needs in the upper house. After all, if the nation were truly convinced that daang matuwid works, there would be no point in undertaking it with half-measures (no pun intended). The only way to pursue it would be to go all in.

Five ways to elevate political discourse in the Philippines

Election season 2013 has begun. The opening salvos have been fired. Both camps, Team PNoy and UNA are now locked in battle. Team PNoy a coalition comprised of the ruling LP, Akbayan, the NP, LDP, nominal members of the NPC and PDP-Laban and two independents claim to represent the reformist, “righteous path”. The United Nationalist Alliance comprised of PDP-Laban, PMP, NPC, former members of Lakas-CMD with some adopted independents also running under Team PNoy position themselves as the more populist, pragmatist camp.

As you can tell, the incestuous nature of these broad coalitions with common candidates (update: the latest twist is that this has been recently scrapped) and members of the same party running on different tickets can be rather confusing. Such is the rambunctious nature of Philippine politics where anything goes. Try as they might to distinguish themselves from each other, the field seems littered with mostly more of the same. And so in a world where you have fifty shades of grey as opposed to black and white, the pejorative name-calling has begun with one camp branding the other “impostors”, and the latter retaliating by naming the former a band of “hypocrites”. The polemicists have tried to distinguish good dynasts from bad ones, but it all seems to be a bit like determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

In fact, I would use the treadmill utilised in the filming of Team PNoy’s advertisement as a metaphor for the Philippines—there seems to be a lot of movement, a lot of activity, but the country merely finds itself running in place, with no progress to show for it. In its nearly twenty-seven years of history since the EDSA people power revolution which will be celebrated in a few days, the nation has experienced boom and bust cycles. It has grown, but the number of jobs created each year is barely enough to cope with new entrants into the job market. The poverty rate may have gone down, but the absolute number of people living below the $1.50 per day poverty line has not dramatically declined.

The same problems seem to hound us, yet the same families and cliques continue to get elected into higher office. Other poorer countries have caught up and overtaken us in the meantime. I am talking about China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Pretty soon Vietnam will do the same. Like the mythical Sisyphus, we seem destined to roll our rock up the hill, only to see it roll down again.

So what can we do to break the cycle? Must we perpetually have this circus every three years without any significant improvement in tone or in substance? I thought PNoy and his Liberal Party were meant to usher in a new way of governing. That includes the way they run their party, right? So how can the political discourse in the country be improved? What should we as voters and as citizens demand from our politicians?

I would offer five simple but meaningful ways that in my humble opinion would raise the standard in our political system a notch or two. Here they are:

  1. Have clear party (or coalition) platforms. In Team PNoy’s first official campaign ad, they introduce their candidates and offer them up as the team that will implement the president’s program of reform. But what that program is was not actually explained. UNA’s ad allowed each candidate to state the basic themes of their individual priorities as legislators to be, but again no unifying theme or platform. The first step towards clarifying what each team stands for is to demand from them a detailed party (or coalition) platform outlining the policies that they intend to legislate. (Note: the party as distinct from each individual candidate.) Voters should know why they should support the full team, as opposed to individuals. This is such a basic thing, but it is rarely adhered to. Yet it is a sign of political maturity, if they are able to do this one thing.
  2. Prepare fully costed policies. It is very easy to say you are for health, very easy to say you are for education, for employment, for good government and for protection. The question is how your party plans to go about delivering them. The next step after submitting a set of policies is to cost those policies. This answers two fundamental questions: (a) how much will it cost to implement them, and (b) where will the money come from? I would suggest that if a party (or coalition) cannot answer these two basic questions, then their platforms are not worth the paper they are printed on. Only by answering these questions will we know how serious these politicos are. Are they merely offering token programs that won’t have an impact on the problems they wish to address or are they talking about systemic reforms? Are they offering expensive programs which will be funded by “savings”? If so, they have to nominate which programs they will cut—where will the savings come from? If they intend to raise revenue measures to fund these programs, then they have to specify these as well. The Congressional Budget Office should be made available to assist them and to verify if the revenue and cost estimates are credible.
  3. A coherent strategy for industrial transformation and job creation has to be put forward. In my humble opinion, it is no longer credible to offer livelihood programs or temporary government projects as an employment strategy. There has to be a coherent strategy aimed at restructuring our industrial mix. The World Bank, the UN and the ADB have in the last five years shifted their position on the matter. The former chief economist of the World Bank Justin Yifu Lin, the first non-Westerner to head up the Bank has re-written its views on industrial policy. It is now germane to talk about industrial transformation through government intervention again. Dubbing this new approach the New Structural Economics (or NSE), the Bank now offers a systematic way to facilitate industry transformation through what it calls its growth identification facilitation framework (or GIFF). The key question for the parties (or coalitions) to address is whether they would pursue this and how they would give it new impetus. Should the country for example set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund with the excess foreign reserves created by OFW remittances? What areas or themes should this fund invest in? There has to be a coherent strategy for lifting the investment rate and for generating productive capacity within the country.
  4. A time frame for execution has to be laid down. If parties plan to introduce new policies or programs, and they have costed them, they need to specify their timetable for achieving them. Will they gradually phase them in? Will there be sunset clauses, if these policies are only meant to deal with temporary crises or situations? If they for instance commit to a Freedom of Information bill, they need to specify a time frame for passing it. In so doing, they will be specifying their legislative agenda for the next three to six years. If they don’t spell out their time frame,  why should we as voters believe that they are serious about implementing such proposals?
  5. A credible commitment or letter of undertaking must be signed. Finally, if these parties (or coalitions) are indeed serious about their plans, their programs and their agendas, they need to put all this in writing and have their entire slate sign a formal document undertaking to abide by them. They need to affix their names to it and present it to the public. I could go further and say that they should offer to waive their pork barrel allotments if they fail to live up to their commitment, but I won’t. We the people will at least know they have reneged and can choose to punish them at the next election. It is a matter of trust. If we can’t rely on their word, then they ought not to count on our votes next time.

Well, there you go. It’s a simple recipe for assuring greater responsiveness and accountability on the part of our elected officials and their parties. I haven’t called for the abolition of political dynasties. I haven’t called for punishing political turncoats, butterflies or balimbings or changing our form of government or any other fundamental re-jigging of our constitution.

All I have proposed is to have some kind of institutional evolution, some meaningful incremental reform in the way we distinguish one set of politicians from another. One candidate the other day asked the question, who is a trapo (traditional politician)? I would like to answer that by saying, a trapo is someone who does not adhere to these five basic principles as outlined above. It is about time the Philippines with its sophisticated 24/7 digital and social media technology for conducting campaigns followed a more modern method of conducting its public policy discourse. In this manner, at least, we can gain some degree of progress down the road towards political and democratic maturity that has eluded us so far.