FOI Bill

Going legit

cross-roads

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.

Is Aquino Just A Popular Version of Arroyo?

In an excellent piece for the Guardian newspaper, Slavoj Žižek makes reference to the work of philosopher Jean-Claude Milner who he says

proposed the notion of the “stabilising class”: not the old ruling class, but all who are committed to the stability and continuity of the existing social, economic and political order – the class of those who, even when they call for a change, do so to ensure that nothing really will change (emphasis mine).

Žižek asserts that the key to electoral success in 2012 was in a party’s ability to win over this class, which is what President Obama did by pitting his stable leadership against the radical changes proposed by the “Republican market and religious fundamentalists”.  Even now, Mitt Romney proves just how disconnected he is when he characterised as providing “gifts” to minorities the policies that Obama took to the electorate.  As for President Obama’s first term, Žižek goes on to say that

(m)any disappointed by his presidency held against him precisely the fact that the core of his much-publicised “hope” proved to be that the system can survive with modest changes (emphasis mine).

The same can be said of President Noynoy Aquino’s election in 2010. As the “hope and change” candidate of that electoral cycle, the people that elected him were merely seeking to restore the Philippines to the state his mother had left it in back in 1992. The purpose of his candidacy was to pull the country back from the brink of destruction and restore dignity and faith in the political system.

The very thesis of Corazon Aquino’s presidency was to prove that the pre-Martial Law, landed gentry could govern with self-restraint. For as long as the ruling class could manage to do so, the system of governance that she put in place would be able to accommodate the demands of the masses. For as long as there remained some modicum of decency (what Filipinos call delicadeza) from elites, any radical overhaul of the system could be avoided.

This is perhaps why President Aquino has so far shied away from pursuing any structural change in his campaign against corruption. This could be why he put off proposing any new revenue measures like the indexation of sin taxes until now. It could also be why despite promising to support reproductive health reforms he initially backed away from supporting it once in office. And it could also be why he signed into law the anti-cybercrime bill that many have derided for restricting freedom of expression, and why he is against tinkering with the constitution.

Instead of introducing change through these measures, Mr Aquino’s administration cranked up the programs and policies pursued by his predecessor, namely the conditional cash transfers program, universal kindergarten education, PhilHealth expansion, the anti-tax cheat program called RATE, business process outsourcing and tourism promotion and the euphemistic “fiscal consolidation” program. These were all begun by Mrs Arroyo whose popularity never seemed to benefit from them.

So, to mimic Žižek who rhetorically asked whether Obama was just “Bush with a human face”, can we also pose the question, “Is PNoy simply a popular version of PGMA?”

In the case of Obama, Žižek gives us reason to disagree with the assertion that he is merely Bush with a human face in that

(a)lthough his healthcare reforms were mired in so many compromises they amounted to almost nothing, the debate triggered was of huge importance. A great art of politics is to insist on a particular demand that, while thoroughly realist, feasible and legitimate, disturbs the core of the hegemonic ideology. The healthcare reforms were a step in this direction – how else to explain the panic and fury they triggered in the Republican camp?

In a previous post on this topic, I likened the debate America was having on healthcare with the one the Philippines is currently engaged in with respect to the reproductive health reform measure in Congress. Both touch on a nerve that is fundamental to the psyche of each nation with respect to the choice being considered and challenge each country’s default position with regard to the role of the state in each case.

Unlike Obama however who chose the issue of healthcare as the transformative one that would define his first term in office, despite the fact that the budget and economy were looming large as potential roadblocks to his re-election, President Aquino hasn’t really staked his presidency on any signature issue, save for impeaching Mr Corona and jailing Mrs Arroyo.

In the case of Mr Aquino, the victories over the former chief justice and ex-president respectively start to ring hollow among his supporters who don’t necessarily see the anti-corruption campaign continuing in the future under Mr Aquino’s likely successors. For them, a set of insurance policies to mitigate against any potential backsliding is required but does not seem to be forthcoming from Mr Aquino’s current leadership (or lack thereof) when it comes to the Freedom of Information bill and other similar measures.

As they see the potential dominance of the Binays, Estradas and Pacquiaos in our national political landscape for years and years to come, many are also beginning to call for the fulfilment of the anti-dynasty provisions in the constitution. Again, it does not seem as though the president will be leading on this issue. For the “will of the people” to be fulfilled, no restriction ought to be placed on their choices, he would probably say.

That so called choice presupposes however that people are indeed free to decide on their own. The framers of our present constitution perhaps knew intuitively that for this to be so, people would need to have a certain level of economic freedom and independence. Until such was achieved, they must have felt certain restrictions needed to be in place. What Milner describes as the stabilising force is nothing but a healthy middle class.

Unlike President Obama who broke with economic orthodoxy by bailing out the auto-industry and giving subsidies to clean tech companies in the hope of saving and creating jobs with living wages, President Aquino and his team feel no need to intervene in the appreciation of the peso to support our manufacturing base which is needed to grow the middle class.

For Mr Aquino, the fact that he can demonstrate the ability of the ruling class to govern with a level of integrity ought to be enough to ensure that things never go back to the way they were under Mrs Arroyo. For his fellow dynasts who supported his candidacy and form part of his ruling coalition, however, the fact that Mr Aquino thinks this way guarantees that things will indeed go back to “business as usual” when they get their turn in the driver’s seat.

In defence of P-Noy

image taken from bloggers.com

He became a noun (“Aquinomics”), he became an -ism (“noynoyism”), but now he has become a verb (“noynoying”), and it is pretty, well how shall we say it? “An-noying.”

Just like the president’s love life, which he says he would like to keep off limits to the media, but which he himself cannot stop talking about, the phenomenon known as “noynoying” he says is not worth our attention, and yet the very act of saying so draws our focus to it.

Militant groups that hopped on to the “planking” phenomenon to paralyse traffic in the streets have shown just how savy they are propaganda-wise by adapting this into a new posture, that of noynoying, which is a form of idling, pensively sitting around doing nothing while propping one’s chin with one arm as a mutant strain of the “occupy” protest movement. This they say symbolizes the president’s passivity in the wake of repeated oil price hikes.

The palace’s ill-advised release of photos showing the president behind his desk working in earnest only seemed to fan the flames and breathe life into the story. This played into the hands of the left-leaning propagandists who took to social media decrying the government’s response as all spin and no substance.

Wittingly or unwittingly, this seems to dovetail nicely with the narrative coming from the Arroyo camp that the president dropped the ball last year on the economy allowing it to slip into a slower growth rate while sitting idly by. Similarly, in the case of Hacienda Luisita, the impeached Chief Justice wants to make it all about the Hacienda Luisita estate owned by the president’s relatives rather than himself and has garnered support from the representatives of farmers and progressive groups like Bayan Muna.

I find it rather amusing that anyone with a gripe or an axe to grind often falls into the trap of jumping on the bandwagon when a popular phenomenon sprouts up, just as in the case of noynoying. Those frustrated with the delayed passage of the reproductive health or freedom of information bills for instance, have flirted if not readily embraced this form of protest without distinguishing the issues involved.

It is so easy to mindlessly follow social networking trends these days without taking a considered view in my opinion. It is at this point that I would like to say a few things in defence of the president. Some might think this is “out of character” on my part, since lately I have been accused of being an Arroyo sympathizer and branded a Corona acolyte for my criticisms of the way President Aquino has handled many things in office: from his unintended fiscal austerity program to his overzealous pursuit “in the hunt” for Mrs Arroyo and her proxies.

So now that I am about to say something in defence of Mr Aquino, I expect to be labelled something else. Perhaps a flip-flop, or a “balimbing”. What my critics fail to appreciate is that I simply call things the way I see them regardless of which side of politics I offend. As a policy analyst, it is my duty I believe to speak the truth to power, to advise without fear or favour. So this is how I see this issue…

First of all, PNoy is not the only head of state who has had to grapple with this issue and responded to it in the way that he has. President Obama has also said that there is very little his government could do to affect oil prices. Now, the difference of course between the Philippines and the United States is that the latter at least has massive oil reserves and untapped resources. But, as President Obama has shown, even if he were to authorize drilling to occur even in the national reserves to go full steam ahead, the effect on the price of oil would be quite minuscule (about one percent).

Ironically, it has been conservatives on the right like Rush Limbaugh (not leftists) who have faulted President Obama for taking a laissez-faire approach. Republican Mitt Romney has recently called on Obama’s energy team to resign over their inability to influence gas prices. The public for their part do not seem to be swayed by such populist rhetoric. They seem to accept Obama’s premise that there is little he can do. For his part, Obama has faulted speculators for manipulating futures prices of oil for profit.

My point here is that if the leader of the free world, the most powerful man on the planet says there is nothing much even he can do, then what more can the leader of a developing economy like the Philippines do?

Secondly, just as in the case of the oil price stabilisation fund before it, the fuel subsidy to transport operators was in fact applied, but as we can see, there is really so much that government can afford to do. Unlike the situation in the 90s when gas prices spiked then returned to their normal levels, high oil prices today will become the “new normal”. This may be because we have reached “peak oil“, or it may be due to the rising demand from emerging economies thirsty for fuel and energy resources. Either way, we simply have to adapt to this new reality rather than try to artificially recreate the old one.

There is no such thing as an entitlement to cheap oil. It is not embedded in the Constitution as one of our human rights. Yet,  militant groups would have you believe that it is the role of the state–to guarantee the affordability of crude oil. That simply is a myth.

Thirdly, what the government ought to do in easing us into a new state of affairs, it is already doing with its energy policies focused on encouraging renewable sources of power and fuel. The distribution of electric public utility vehicles along with the auctioning of rights to build power plants which harness wind, natural gas, solar and wave technology is already progressing.

So as far as this goes, the government is not standing “idly by”. It has a considered program in place that seeks to guide our economy to a smaller carbon footprint and less dependency on oil. If anything, it is even being pro-active in pushing this agenda forward.

Of course the objection from transport groups will be that these programs don’t address their problems. Their position is understandable. They are indeed caught between a rock and a hard place, with the fares they charge to commuters regulated, while the cost of fuel is liberalized. This I think is the crux of the matter. At some point, their requests for rate increases need to be heard by an impartial body. The problem will be to contain the flow on effect this will have on wages.

But the thing is, regional wage boards will deal with that issue when the time comes. Their role is similar to that of transport regulators in that they have to weigh the interests of various stakeholders and temper the impact of any adjustment to society at large. The mechanisms for dealing with oil prices and wages are there and have been in place for quite some time.

Whenever the country is caught in the currents of global events, it sometimes takes all the energy of the man in charge  to maintain a level head and not directly intervene. There is in fact a time when “doing nothing” is the appropriate response, when the alternatives which may make him popular would be even more damaging.

That time I believe is now. In defence of the president, I believe he has seized it.

Spokes in the Wheels of Justice

Towards a Genuine Agenda for a Just Society

As the world of the blogosphere, twitterverse and mainstream media soak up as much as it can from the Corona impeachment trial, delving into the subtle elements of the rules of court, rules of evidence and so, on, one wonders about the long-standing issues related to injustice and impunity that slip below the radar as far as the public policy agenda is concerned.

The wheels of justice revved up so expeditiously in the lead up to the impeachment of Corona, but they grind ever so slowly in the case of so many others. To wit, I now turn the spotlight on them in the form of a Top 5 ranking. I ask the question, what is happening to these “five spokes” in the “wheels of justice” given the fact that P-Noy’s administration has placed “judicial reform” at the top of its agenda. I highlight the status of the issues involved, some history, current developments and provide some justification for including them in the top five list. Well, without further ado, here they are:

5. Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill.

The president sent to Congress his version of the bill on Thursday, February 2, 2012. It took at least eighteen months for his government to come up with its own version of the proposed law. At first, the Palace was rather reticent about endorsing any version of the FOI bill as urgent when it hammered out its legislative agenda. Finally, it relented after several months of mounting public pressure from concerned citizens on the issue.

Many elements of the law remain contentious which means that you can expect the debate in Congress to be fierce. The House of Representatives will need to reconcile the different versions of the bill. The question is whether the Senate will have time to deliberate on it given the proceedings currently underway there.

I include this in the Top 5 Spokes of the Wheels of Justice because an FOI law would allow for greater transparency. Greater transparency would be required in ensuring that government disclose to the public what it knows about certain issues that impact on people’s lives, safety and well-being.

This is just an extension of the freedom of the press, something that was uppermost in the mind of P-Noy’s father when he languished in prison and in exile and struggled to let the world know about his story. The FOI Bill needs to have safeguards, but the risks of greater accountability should not detract from the overall vision of having a more accountable, transparent, and just society.

4. Reproductive Health (RH) Bill.

After vacillating over whether to certify as urgent any of the reproductive health bills in Congress, the president finally gave his seal of approval by proposing his own version of the RH bill. The clock ran out last year though as Congress went into recess. The problem will be enacting the bill so close to an election year when the anti-RH adherents will be fired-up to go against legislators who vote in favour of it.

The longer the impeachment trial drags on, the greater the likelihood that the RH bill will not pass, considering where we are in our political/electoral cycle.

The reason why reproductive health comprises a spoke on the wheel of justice is that it directly affects the future health and well-being of at least half the population, and it indirectly affects every newborn child. Those who study women’s issues will tell you that the way women’s rights are treated in society is a proxy for how just and tolerant society is more broadly.

The question is will we have to wait until after the 2013 elections before this bill get passed?

3. Coco levy funds

If the FOI Bill is a carryover issue from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency, and the RH Bill goes all the way back to Fidel Valdez Ramos’, the disposition of the coco levy funds goes all the way back to Ferdinand Edralin Marcos’. The coco levy fund was administered by P-Noy’s uncle, Danding Cojuangco. The current Senate president had a hand in it too.

The Supreme Court recently ruled and affirmed the Sandiganbayan antigraft court’s decision which awarded to the government close to a quarter of the shares of San Miguel Corporation that Mr Cojuangco controls. It said that the funds should be used only to benefit the farmers who had contributed to the levy after it was mandated by Mr Marcos.

This prompted a farmer’s party-list organization to press for the president’s endorsement to the house of a bill that would facilitate the return of the fund to the farmers. The said shares in San Miguel are estimated to be as high as one hundred and fifty billion pesos (Php150 Billion) presently. If spread over five years, the annual disbursement could exceed the budget for the conditional cash transfers.

This is definitely a spoke in the wheel of justice since coconut farmers occupy the lowest rung in the ladder (sorry for getting my metaphors mixed up) in the agricultural sector. They constitute the poorest of the poor. While rice farmers continue to receive billions in subsidy from the grains program each year, no such assistance is extended to coconut farmers. Yet, the biggest growth in agricultural productivity can be had if this fund were used to assist them in making their fields more productive by introducing other crops.

With the appointment of a former aide of Mr Cojuangco to the cabinet, one can be certain that the views of the old man will be represented at the table when Cabinet decides on the issue. The longer it takes for such an anomaly to be corrected (the farmers have already waited a quarter of a century), the bigger the insult suffered by those who deserve just compensation. It is their money after all.

2. Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program with Extensions (CARPER)

This problem goes back so long, I will not even bother to try to “date” it. The Huk rebellion in the 1950s following the war led to the election of President Ramon Magsaysay who promised to institute social reforms. What was applied though were band aid solutions. His popularity among the people which improved social cohesion and public trust in government and the availability of land in Mindanao made it possible to skirt the issue of land reform.

CARPER is just the last in a long succession of policies aimed at solving the land issue. Its immediate predecessor CARP was enacted by the late-Corazon Cojuangco Aquino’s presidency. The program was given a new lease on life at the end of GMA’s term. The current president promised to complete its implementation including resolving the Hacienda Luisita issue before stepping down in 2106. The Hacienda Luisita issue dates back to the time of Ramon Magsaysay when the government bankrolled its acquisition by the Cojuangcos by guaranteeing loans to P-Noy’s grandfather Jose Cojuangco.

Aside from the vexed issue of land distribution under CARPER, there is currently the issue of land grabbing allegedly taking place. An international fact-finding team recently investigated reports involving land covering three towns of San Mariano, Ilagan and Benito Soliven. At the heart of the problem lies Green Future Innovations, Inc which plans to put up a bio-ethanol plant that will cost $120 million. It was alleged that more than a thousand farmers and indigenous people were displaced by the project. The area involved is 2,200 hectares. The infusion of capital by a Japanese partner into the project was hailed as one of the positive developments coming out of the president’s trip to Japan last year.

Again, these are mere allegations at this point, but they are disconcerting given the context. They raise the question of whether the government has a land use policy in mind and how it plans to handle the question of foreign ownership of land. This is a sleeper issue. The same thing could conceivably be duplicated by China in its search for energy resources. At the root of this problem is the question of property rights. How are they defined and protected? What measures will the government take to ensure that land is used productively to benefit our national interests.

1. Compensation for Martial Law victims

I place this on top of the agenda. Why? Because in the others (save perhaps for the RH Bill and the case of Hacienda Luisita), people were deprived of either their property or right to information. Here, they were deprived of their lives and their liberty. The arbitrary use of police powers by the state to abuse its people, the very citizens whose rights they are meant to protect, well, no graver injustice can be said to occur.

Yet,  a quarter of a century has passed, and we are still awaiting some final closure to this issue. Even after the case was won securing money from the Marcoses to compensate the 7,500 victims, the orderly distribution of ten billion pesos worth of those funds is yet to be framed by Congress. A bill in the House has already made its way through the appropriations committee as of February 7, 2012. This paves the way for deliberations on the floor. Whether or not there will be enough time to hammer out the bill and enact it this year is another question. In March last year, victims started to receive compensation in the form of a $7.5 million award from a US court.

After waiting so long, the end is finally in sight. Each year, a few of the original surviving victims pass away without seeing their claims recognized. Honoring them and their loved ones through compensation would be the best way to bring closure to this dark chapter in our nation’s history.

Conclusion

In pursuing justice, the Palace has chosen to focus on the injustices that occurred during the last five years of the Arroyo presidency by going after her henchmen  whom she had left behind entrenched in certain sensitive positions. Last year saw a growing body count of individuals tied to the former regime. The latest target, the chief justice, is currently occupying the nation’s attention with live coverage of his courtroom drama unfolding daily.

Meanwhile, there are decades’ old injustices perpetrated by past regimes that remain unresolved. Indeed, if the Palace had pursued these cases with as much vigour and swiftness that it demonstrated when it filed the impeachment complaint against the chief justice, then perhaps its victims would be able to heave a heavy collective sigh of relief. The wheels of justice they say grind slowly. Justice delayed is justice denied. Let it not be said that this government turned its back on “the least of our brethren” whom it claims to be fighting for.

How long is a piece of string?

What yardstick are we using to measure P-Noy’s performance?

The arbitrary, rule of thumb of the first year in office is about to come and go for this administration. The obligatory journalistic pieces assessing the president’s performance have consulted the usual suspects.

Political analysts, polling firms and pundits, the business community and the average man on the street express varying degrees of satisfaction, from impatience on the part of Conrad de Quiros for instance, to a more sanguine position on the part of Mon Casiple. Regardless of their positions, they are essentially in agreement that while one year is too brief a period to expect major change, some demonstrably concrete level of progress or achievement is lacking in the president’s first 365 days in office.

As expected the president’s men were engaged in a charm offensive to address these complaints with Undersecretary Manolo Quezon of the Communications Group appearing on ANC, Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte on Twitter, and Budget Secretary Butch Abad polemically addressing the issue of economic management. The to-ing and fro-ing has been at times entertaining as in the case of the Valte-Magsaysay twitterverse exchanges and insightful as in the case of Quezon’s revelations about the president’s love life.

The advocates of the president (both in and out of government) say that much has been accomplished. The emphasis on government frugality and public spending restraint has created domestic private investor confidence and a credit ratings dividend according to Cielito Habito. Plugging the leaks in infrastructure spending has generated fiscal space to expand social spending by the end of the year according to Abad. Public private partnerships are “on track” to be consummated this year according to Finance officials.

That in essence is the shortlist of accomplishments brandished by Malacanang. Judging by his poll numbers, the public seems to give P-Noy the nod of approval with 64% expressing satisfaction with his performance.

Is that it, then? Should we give the president a pass too?

Unfortunately, what is missing is a solid discussion over, well…what sort of yardstick is appropriate for measuring the president’s performance. For instance,

• Shall we judge him on what he said he will do?

Based on the president’s anti-Gloria campaign theme, De Quiros now questions why the former president and her ilk have not been brought before any court to answer for her alleged transgressions. Based on his anti-corruption platform, the Management Association of the Philippines now asks why there have been no measures like the Freedom of Information bill or any meaningful reductions in business redtape progressed.

Civil rights advocates wonder what has happened to Jonas Burgos and many other like him. Women’s groups are still waiting for the RH Bill to be passed. Farmers are wondering what happened to the resolution of Hacienda Luisita. The ordinary man on the street wonders where the jobs are and the relief from the rising cost of living. These were issues PNoy promised to resolve once in office.

• On the other hand, should we judge him based on his ability to prudently modify or alter what he said he would do?

Those with a nationalist agenda like Teddy Casino say P-Noy is delivering more of the same as far as economic policy goes, and hopes he will re-think his developmental economic strategy. The anxiety felt by Casino and others like him (Walden Bello for instance) is that the quality of growth is poor and insufficient to make a dent on unemployment.

Budget analyst Ben Diokno is looking for a two-step tax reform process that will make the system fairer and more effective at raising revenues. Both of these policy prescriptions run counter to the “steady as she goes” pronouncements that PNoy made during the election season.

Measuring up

The answer to the question, what yardstick do we use, depends on whether you are a strict contractualist or not. Some will say, we should evaluate the president plainly on what he said he would do, and nothing more. For me, however, I believe that given the tenor of the campaign, there were promises that were bound to be made in the spur of the moment, which need to be reconsidered.

The problem for the president of course is, whether you adhere to the strict contractual sense or not, he has failed to register meaningful progress on many fronts. So the question then becomes, how much time should we give him before we start downgrading his performance assessment? How long before we start saying that the president has either reneged or foolishly forged ahead down a dead end path?

Should we give him another six months? A full year? Two years? It’s like asking the question, how long is a piece of string?

After all, for the marginalized groups awaiting resolution to decade’s old injustices, their well-being has been put on hold for far too long. The well-healed chattering classes may feel aggrieved that bringing justice to Arroyo has been delayed, but their grief is nothing compared to what farmers and human rights abuse victims have suffered.

Similarly for those denied access to education, healthcare, sanitation and protection from the elements, the experiment to improve tax collection without a root and branch reform process would prove to be the most costly of all, if it fails. Is it therefore worth the gamble?

Perhaps, it is in addressing the needs of the least of our brethren that the president ought to be judged. In his “Back to the Future” moment, the president like his mother in the mid-1980s seemed to have prioritized the needs of rich creditors and bondholders over that of poor and marginalized stakeholders. Private investments have improved the skyline, but public investment failed to raise more out of the poverty line.

How long is a piece of string? Well we will have to wait and see…