International Budget Partnership

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.