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.

Gov. Gwen Garcia or Gwen Garci?

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” – Groucho Marx

The controversy over the suspension of Cebu governor Gwen Garcia for grave abuse of authority and her subsequent defiance of the suspension order because of legal technicalities was summed up in a question by a columnist from a major daily : “Is it the rule of law or the rule of politics?”

The rule of law as defined by my online dictionary is “the restriction of the arbitrary exercise of power by subordinating it to well-defined and established laws.”

Ideally, the rule of law checks the capriciousness of politicians. In reality, politicians are good at disguising capriciousness as rule of law. And so, with as much legal piety as they can muster, both sides in the Garcia controversy cite the rule of law to back up their support for or opposition to the implementation of her suspension. 

The administration points to substance – the evidence against Garcia – to back up its suspension order. Garcia, on the other hand, points to form – the suspension came too late, 474 days after the deadline mandated by the Local Government Code – to back her defiance of the suspension order.  

Which side is with the rule of law? Both could be because politicians will never run out of arguments to support whatever side they are on. 

From the Palace –  “Our position is that this is a process that has to be followed and we are all obliged to follow the law. And you cannot choose which law you will follow and which you will not so let us all follow the law and let us not create a situation where people are encouraged to violate the law.”

From the UNA coalition –  “So it only shows that there is really a process, okay? Governor Garcia opted to file in court also. Why then, can’t they halt the suspension in the meantime? After all, they’re saying it’s not a preventive suspension, it’s a penalty.” He added, “You know, that account about me and Senator Enrile and President Erap, that’s true. And we were there primarily para makipaggitgitan na manaig ang rule of law.” 

From the Liberal Party – “If they believe in legal processes, they should have advised Gwen to leave the Capitol and let the legal process take due course because she herself has sought refuge in the legal system in filing a motion for temporary restraining order.”

At any rate, the Court of Appeals will decide which side is more right. Will it uphold substance over form or form over substance? 

Whichever way the CA decides, one party will feel aggrieved and will howl that the rule of law was sacrificed on the altar of politics. The baying will never end.  The pressing question then is, can you do anything to end this endless barking back and forth?

Yes, you can do something about it. Gwen Garcia’s suspension is in the hands of the Court of Appeals but her political future, and her allies as well, is in your hands. You are the predicate, you decide their fate. You are the sovereign, they are your subjects. Rule wisely. You can vote against Garcia and her allies if you believe an abusado should not be in public office or you can take their side if you believe that an abusado can be abused through bad form. 

As for me I’m tempted to follow the advice of Jobak, my spiritual adviser from the Cordilleras – “Just focus on Gwen Garci of Viva Hot Babes, she’s a far more interesting subject than Gwen Garcia of Cebu.” Om…

A Government in Waiting

The revolution that swept President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino into power in 2010 is about to engage in fratricide in 2013 with one wing, “the idealists” comprised of the LP/Roxas camp, squaring off with “the pragmatists” comprised of the UNA/Binay camp. Mrs Arroyo and her proxies won’t fit into the equation at all as she faces trial. The winner will be in pole position to capture the presidency in 2016.

Nearly a year away from the 2013 midterm elections, Vice President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay and former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada announced their formation of a coalition and a likely senatorial line-up to contest it.

The formal alliance UNA (United Nationalist Alliance) is a combination of Binay’s PDP-Laban (Philippine Democratic Party) and Estrada’s PMP (Philippine Party of the Masses), but it has also attracted members or former members of other major parties like the Nationalista Party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, and Lakas-Kampi, the party of former president Arroyo.

The rebranding of UNO the united opposition launched at the height of Mrs Arroyo’s regime’s unpopularity into a party of incumbents today comprised of Binay and the re-electionist senators Jinggoy Estrada, et al makes it a formidable contender for seats in Congress and at the local level. Most analysts and commentators see it as the team to beat.

Normally, in a midterm election, politicians would be lining up behind the administration for obvious reasons. This time around, the Liberal Party (LP) of the president seems to be in the unattractive position of having to scrape together a ticket of “unwinnables” or “also rans”. Such a predicament seems rather astounding given the massive support it received in 2010 with the president trouncing the popular action movie star “Erap” Estrada the nearest contender by several million votes.

Although Binay slipped into the vice presidency in a squeaker of a race with LP president Mar Roxas (the latter is still contesting the results), his exposure to a national constituency and his seniority in government now make him seem more like a president-in-waiting. With his proven abilities at organization and mobilization and his public approval ratings among government officials being second to none, he has become a more attractive coalition partner and leader to those seeking to retain or attain higher office.

Meanwhile, the hands of the administration has been tied up with other matters. The impeachment trial of the Chief Justice continues to drag on preventing its legislative agenda from gaining momentum. The public doesn’t seem to understand nor care what the outcome is. They have shifted their focus to other pressing concerns. The energy crisis in Mindanao and the oil price conundrum continue to hug the headlines. Tensions in the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula have also highlighted our vulnerable state amid the power struggles in the region. Continued weakness in our foreign markets both in the US and EU provides a very dire economic outlook.

All this makes for quite a diabolical cocktail, one which would give the nation a severe hangover in its wake. In this context, it is very difficult to see how the administration can address the structural problems that have kept the nation performing below expectations. As the word “noynoying” slips into public consciousness it would seem likely for its public approval rating which has been defying gravity to recede as per the normal cycle of presidential life. This means senatorial candidates won’t be able to count on “yellow magic” to win them votes in 2013.

Of course at the local level is where principle of “the one who holds the purse strings” matters. This is where the Binay family franchise over Makati City and its relations with sister cities comes into play. Malacañang has recently announced that with the election season approaching, it will tighten its grip on the release of countrywide development funds. The intention of this policy is quite unclear. Are they doing this to prevent dubious forms of pork barrelling, as they claim, or are they doing this to force local politicians to shift to their side?

Either way it is sure to irritate not a few local officials who will be crucial in getting members of any national ticket in the winner’s column. This may make them gravitate more towards Mr Binay’s camp, given his more easy-going manner when it comes to these things. As a pragmatist, he is more attuned to the requirements of governing in the Philippine context. Even if the idealists succeed in purging him from PNoy’s cabinet, they will probably be doing him a favor, as their public approval starts to slump. As more and more people become disillusioned with the administration, they will inevitably see in Mr Binay a better alternative.

High-minded aspirations are one thing when you are waging a campaign to unseat an unpopular regime; dealing with the demands of the masses the day after you succeed in toppling it is another. Mr Binay has demonstrated throughout his political and administrative career like no other contemporary leader of his generation how to pivot from performing the role of an agitator to that of a manager. He is following the same template now as he maneuvers himself into the top spot.