elite bargain

Seeds of undoing

greek-tragedy-and-comedy-masks

An essential element of Greek tragedy according to Aristotle is for protagonists to carry with them the seeds of their own undoing. Often it comes in the form of “hubris”, man’s feeling of invincibility, which makes him tempt fate, or contest the will of the gods.

The same sense of mortality that comes at the end of each plot seemed to creep in last week as results of internal polling commissioned by the administration and leaked by a Palace insider showed the president’s popularity taking a nosedive as a result of his response to the controversy involving the release of impounded government savings without congressional approval.

DAP or the disbursement acceleration program was hatched by budget secretary Butch Abad, the chief ideologue of the Liberal Party to deal with the embarrassingly sluggish pace at which the economy was crawling at the time, dragged down by fiscal contraction. This was the result of the administration’s own deliberate attempts at house cleaning by scrutinising projects and contracts which were entered into by its predecessor.

The irony is that in a bid to rid the government of the ghost of Mrs Arroyo, the Aquino administration wound up committing the very same act that it accused her of, namely re-aligning budget items out of expediency. During Mrs Arroyo’s presidency, the opposition blocked passage of her proposed general appropriations for a number of fiscal cycles forcing a re-enactment of the previous year’s budget. This enabled her to reallocate spending across departments at will for budgeted projects that had already been completed the previous year.

Mr Aquino faced an entirely different situation but ended up with the same outcome. He had no problem getting congressional sign-off on his proposed annual expenditures, which sailed through in record time. His problem was getting the approved amounts spent. Having applied the fiscal brakes too harshly in a bid to present a clean break with the past, he wound up revisiting it.

The Department of Budget and Management explains how much was spent under DAP and for what purpose, as follows

For 2011-2012, a total of P142.23 Billion was released for programs and projects identified through the DAP, of which P83.53 Billion is for 2011 and 58.70 Billion is for 2012. In 2011, the amount was used to provide additional funds for programs/projects such as healthcare, public works, housing and resettlement, and agriculture, among others. While in 2012, these were used to augment tourism road infrastructure, school infrastructure, rehabilitation and extension of light rail transit systems, and sitio electrification, among others. […]
Of the total DAP approved by OP (Office of the President) for 2011-2012 amounting to a total of P142.23 Billion only 9 percent was released to programs and projects identified by legislators. These were not released directly to legislators but to implementing agencies.

The sad thing about DAP is that even though less than a tenth of it was directed at legislators, the whole program has become tainted as a result of the scandal that broke out involving the funneling of some of this money into bogus NGOs identified by them.

Not only that, but its release coincided with the impeachment of the Arroyo-appointed chief justice, which the Palace had openly campaigned for. It carried the hint of political back scratching. Add to that the contestable basis on which one branch of government allocated its savings to another (from executive to legislative), and you have the appearance of a government that disregarded the rules in pursuit of its political agenda.

To top it all off, the president appeared on national television denouncing his critics, denying the label “king of pork” that grated his good government sensibilities, claiming that he was “not a thief” in a fashion reminiscent of US president Richard Nixon who left office in disgrace. It is truly tragic that, after cruising at an astronomically high altitude in opinion polls, stratospheric compared to his predecessors, he should come plummeting back to earth and be forced to distinguish himself from common criminals in this manner.

To think that this all happened when the government seemed to be getting into its stride. The past year has been particularly productive with the enactment of several reform measures like reproductive health, sin taxes, and universal health care. In addition, there was the uplift in the country’s credit ratings and ranking in the Doing Business Survey, the resurgence of manufacturing investments, and the signing of the peace deal with Muslim rebels. The growth figures for the first half of the year seemed appealing to most outside investors, as well.

With legal challenges left, right and centre seeking to undermine its legitimacy, the government now appears besieged. Previously, one would have been forgiven for thinking that with its recent string of successes, the regime may be able to manage an orderly succession to its hand-picked nominee. But with the Liberal Party’s important figures, Senate President Frank Drilon and Budget Secretary Butch Abad, in the hot seat for their involvement in the DAP, the party seems like a spent force, having lost its moral authority.

Elite bargain

When Senator Jinggoy Estrada angrily accused the administration of hypocrisy for what he claimed was an unfair targeting of the opposition, I expressed doubts that his tirade would inflict any serious damage on the teflon presidency of Mr Aquino. With hindsight, it now appears to have been an effective ploy. Estrada’s complaint was that there seemed to be “no honor among thieves”, that cosy symbiotic relationship among complicit individuals.

What he was referring to was the political bargain that occurs in multiparty democracies within developing states, in which power is alternately shared among various groups of elites. Corruption is tacitly tolerated because it is assumed that each group will commit it once it is their turn to rule. Allowing a group of oppositionists to be singled out for prosecution, to ruin their political careers, is in effect, reneging on this grand bargain. Mr Estrada’s retaliatory response did nothing to protect him from prosecution, but it nevertheless inflicted damage on the administration for its “unfair” actions.

Time will tell if the damage inflicted is merely a flesh cut, or a mortal wound, but from the perspective of the reformers within the administration, it is a bad omen. Not only has the focus on PDAF and DAP abuse detracted from its policy agenda, it is going to make it difficult to secure votes for what could be unpopular pieces of legislation, particularly in the lead up to the next election when political turncoats will begin sniffing the political winds in search of their new padrino.

The reform constituency often claims that in order to make our political and economic systems more inclusive, we need to eliminate all forms of rent from society. That is we need to generate a clean, accountable and transparent system of governance, and that there will be no trade-offs between pursuing this agenda and pro-poor economic growth. This is in part the fault of the international donor community that has peddled this idea for over a decade on nations with very different institutional foundations.

Reality runs contrary to this notion, particularly if you look at the development experience of the “tiger” economies of East Asia and the “lion” economies of Africa, which are the fastest growing in the world. The tragedy of Daang Matuwid, the good governance agenda of the Aquino administration was that it failed to acknowledge this. It took the economy for granted while hastily conducting a highly charged political prosecution of its predecessor regime.

When the economy started slipping into second gear, it unlocked the floodgates of spending and applied less stringent controls on congressional pork barrel projects than it enforced on its own administrative agencies. It committed an act of “hubris” in thinking that it had succeeded in transforming the political culture of the country. It now finds itself defending a system of rent distribution that its constituents consider anathema to its own brand of government.

It is for this reason that many honest, reform-minded governments get eaten up by the system they seek to change. They often set goals that are too lofty, such as the elimination of corruption within one term of office, or the removal of patronage in favour of a system that observes the rule of law and democratic accountability. In the pursuit of good governance, the perfect often becomes the adversary of the good.

At the end of such a trail is “reform-fatigue”, with a disillusioned electorate turning to corrupt leaders who are able to distribute rents in ways that cater to their local needs. Such leaders are seen to be more competent and effective. This scenario could eventuate in 2016, with many in the reform constituency distrusting the LP and seeking an alternative candidate with a fresh face. This will split their votes and allow a pragmatic populist to gain power.

The scandals that have bedevilled congress and engulfed the president have served only to discourage certain contenders from the opposition to seek higher office, clearing the way for the vice president to consolidate its forces behind him. This means that their votes are less likely to be split along factional lines. And with the vice president’s popularity remaining intact, his lead will simply be unassailable.

The only way for the ruling LP to avoid electoral defeat is for it to deliver rapid, pro-poor growth within the remainder of its term. That won’t be easy, particularly since its formula for producing it, the good governance agenda (captured in its mantra: kung walang kurap, walang mahirap) has already been discredited in different parts of the world where it has been faithfully applied.