Books on The Philippines
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Update No: 022 - (31/10/05)
The Philippines economy continues to trundle along - thanks
largely to the strong inward remittance factor that is propping up consumption
expenditure. The government is seeking to take credit for the good performance
(well, relatively good performance anyway given the global slowdown) but the
truth of the matter is that the economy performs in spite of the government and
not because of it.
This is not to say that the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
has not done good things for the economy. It has. But it could be doing so much
better. Witness the economic reform programme; finally (in November 2005) it
appears that the Expanded Value Added Tax Law (EVAT) will come into effect -
four months after it was supposed to have been introduced - but many other
reform measures have been either stalled or watered down in deference to vested
The fundamental problem and the one that will not go away is the issue of
legitimacy. Did Ms. Arroyo fairly win the 2004 election or is she in power only
because of a massive thwarting of the electoral will by corrupt election
officials. The fact that she refuses to allow the facts to come out into the
public arena is taken as a tacit admission of guilt by most people. That many of
those accused of wrong-doing have already fled abroad to avoid answering tough
questions has not helped. Her popularity rating is now at an all-time low -not
only in relation to the period of her own presidency - but she now scores the
lowest approval rating of any president since Mr. Marcos. To find out why, read
"Emergency rule," "martial law," "illegal
demonstrations, "crackdown," "calibrated pre-emptive
These are the current buzz words being bandied around in chat rooms and in the
Filipino press. Various pressure and advocacy groups are piling the pressure on
and at the bottom of the pile, underneath all the pressure being generated by
the political class, as always, are the poor.
However businesses are also suffering from the current climate of "psywar"
- and in the end that is just what it is. It is not to be expected that GMA will
declare martial law or even emergency rule any time soon but even the threat of
such action comes with a price. One of the questions must be "when will
this price be too great to pay?" The talk by government officials of
nationalizing transport, power, oil and other sectors of society will hardly
result in a more positive business and investment climate.
Now, even pro-administration lawmakers have joined the opposition bandwagon,
warning President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo that she risks losing not only the
support of her political and military allies, but that of the whole political
landscape if she continues down her present path.
The "left" does not have the numbers to mount a credible direct threat
but it grows in strength aided by the combative phrases that are being thrown
around by the administration. Filipinos may well have short memories but how
many of them want to live under martial law again? Even the spectre of it
Members of the NPA have sworn off urban action to focus on their rural
communities (after all, they are following a Maoist agenda) but again this kind
of climate is perfect for them to recruit headstrong students in the cities,
special when these students are being water cannoned.
Business as well as church leaders are currently divided, with some of the best
brains of the country being offered what one commentator called "sinecure
posts" on the Constitutional Consultative Commission debating the issues
surrounding charter change (See September 2005 and more on this topic below).
Yes, the Philippines needs constitutional change (or at least constitutional
amendment) but this is neither the right time nor climate to get the best result
and the Review Commission is not representative of the political class as a
whole. Then of course on the fringe we have the small, but growing Grand
Coalition or Bukluran para sa Katotohanan (Coalition for the Truth) seeking to
ensure the issues surrounding the legitimacy of the presidency are not swept
under the carpet. In a country where politics is based more on the powerful
individual than on ideology, the idea of a grand coalition may at first glance
look like a good one, but with so many of the members pulling in different
directions, will they ever achieve their objective? They are not likely to do so
directly, but they can certainly cause a lot of discomfort with their righteous
indignation that appears to be provoking the administration into ever more
extreme courses of action. A dangerous game of brinkmanship is being played by
The business community wants stability above all else and is unlikely to take
the lead unless it sees its own interests directly threatened (as was the case
in the removal of Estrada from power). However, with the present political
mindsets showing a polarisation of attitudes on both sides, those who have not
so far taken sides are unlikely to get the stability they desire. The middle
ground is fast eroding. Attitudes are hardening on both sides and the present
policy of" calibrated pre-emptive response" is having the opposite
effect of what was intended.
Remember, this was the president who way back in December 2002 declared she
would not run again (in 2004) because she would always be a divisive president.
So it has proved to be. It seems she no longer cares, just as long as she
remains the president.
No wonder then that the middle-class - that group that provided the tipping
point for the ouster of President Estrada - has so far stayed on the sidelines.
They do not see any alternative political leader around which to rally. While
Vice-President Noli de Castro, being another media personality, enjoys wide
support among the masa of the country, he has failed to inspire either the
business community or the middle class. Wisely, he has stayed on the sidelines,
knowing full well that were an election to be held, he would have more than a
passing chance of obtaining the presidency on the strength of the masa vote.
Nobody knows what his agenda would be. He is holding his cards very close to his
The role of a "Loyal Opposition" is an important one in a functioning
democratic system however much those dissenting are a thorn in the flesh. But
the missing ingredient is that of an alternative policy framework. An opposition
must have an alternative platform for it to prosper. The sad thing for the
Philippines is that neither the government nor the opposition has any kind of
platform other than one based on expediency. The Grand Coalition makes that fact
· The Grand Coalition wants the president impeached for "stealing"
· The Speaker of the Lower House (a failed presidential aspirant) wants to
change the constitution so he can gain the trappings of presidential power for
himself and for his political machine (Lakas Party) as Prime Minister under a
unicameral, federal parliamentary system of government.
· The President wants to hold onto the presidency at all costs and is indulging
the Lakas Party while stonewalling the opposition.
The Senate is acting as the true opposition at the moment but of course the
president has tried as best she can to stifle their voices of dissent also. In
so doing, she has found herself being accused of acting like an absolute
monarch. Can we really expect the Senate to join with the House of
Representatives to act on the important issue of Constitutional change? The
House version of a new charter would see a unicameral assembly that in the first
instance dilutes the senate voice by absorbing those with a remaining term into
the membership of the much larger assembly. After expiration of that remaining
term the senators become as extinct as the dodo. It would be much better to
follow the American, Canadian and Australian models and have an upper house
voted in by region. After all is that not what federalism is all about - a
balance between local, regional and national interests?
We may yet get constitutional change foisted upon us but it will certainly not
be by acclamation. Rather it will be another sleight-of-hand job. As of now, it
would be more likely for the people to proclaim Gloria as their queen than
obtain a genuine consensus on charter change! Meddling with the charter at this
time is one sure road to constitutional crisis. More on this below.
The worry is that the president and the house speaker will strike a deal whereby
instead of going to the people to sanction any proposals for constitutional
change (as indeed required by the constitution), they will "in the
interests of saving time and money" simply use the device of getting the
mandate from local government units, most of which have been bought off anyway.
If they do so, this may prove to be the elusive tipping point.
The church (or rather the Roman Catholic Church which functions much like a
state religion in the Philippines) has so far been staunchly pro-Gloria but
there are signs that the church is now starting to hedge its bets and is backing
away from giving her total support. Subjecting bishops to water cannons during a
prayer rally (at least that is how they described it, although to be totally
honest, it was to all intents and purpose a political protest march) neither
wins hearts nor minds and only sows the seed of doubt in those who have so far
supported the cause. Then of course we now have a new Pope who appears to want
his bishops to withdraw from active involvement in politics. After all even Rome
these days keeps one eye on Beijing.
Already the military has started to show cracks within its upper echelons with
General Gudani testifying to the Senate against the orders of the Commander in
Chief on his knowledge of election irregularities. Of course we all know who
that is and why she would prefer him not to have testified! But Gudani, a
principled and respected marine officer, is not, and was not, alone. The
revolving door at the top of the military structure may have been a means of
keeping senior military commanders loyal to Malacañang but it also suggests
that the most senior generals do not have the full respect or loyalty of the
younger officers who see their commanders jockeying for power and influence
rather than focusing on military affairs as they are supposed to do.
Indeed, it is the military that is tasked with the job of defending the
Constitution under the 1987 Constitution itself. So would the military sit idly
by while the government of the day rides rough shod over its provisions? We
simply don't know. We must note it was of course the military that finally
brought down President Estrada. The military are to be seen as Gloria's biggest
threat. Maybe that partially explains the "bunker mentality" that is
currently operating, but this "bunker mentality" is not serving the
country. Now we are seeing reports of gun-running into Luzon (not Mindanao as
might be expected) and hints that the president is marshalling her own
"private army" to defend Malacañang and the presidency. Again, this
suggests that Malacañang feels it needs to hedge its bets in order to survive.
So another question being ask is that of who is serving the country and putting
the country first? Neither Grand Coalitions, people's movements, loosely-used
words, terrorist threats, nor even the Church are currently a threat to the
president and ultimately it will be the military that will decide the
president's fate one way or another. Former President Ramos, House Speaker, the
Hon. Jose "Joe" de Venecia, and others may be looking to give the
president a dignified exit strategy via Constitutional change but many have
doubts that the president will accept it. It has become a hallmark of this
government that it will say one thing at one point and do the opposite at
another so long as it meets the exigencies of the moment. In all the twists and
turns, it has become trapped in its own maze.
The final question must be under what conditions would the military reach the
tipping point? For if they do there will be no escape and Ms. Arroyo's biggest
fear of sharing the same fate as Mr. Estrada may be realised. President Arroyo
may have given a lead when she said back in June at a forum of senior business
leaders that her loyalties were in order to God, country and then family. If the
Catholic Bishop's Conference deserts the president, will the military command
choose God over country?
The Philippines desperately needs stability and suffers from too much
politicking. Most people in the country would not be against "tough"
government; indeed they would welcome it. But it has to be the kind of toughness
that is rooted in principled governance and not opportunism. What we are seeing
at the present moment is a display of naked power by a president concerned with
"survival at all costs" but with a total lack of statecraft.
Issue of Charter change moved to the top of the agenda
In her State of the Nation Address back in July, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
brought charter change off from the back-burner:
"Over the years, our political system has degenerated to the extent that
it is difficult for anyone to make any headway yet to keep his hands clean. To
be sure, the system is still capable of achieving great reforms but by and
large, our political system has betrayed its promise to each new generation of
…The system clearly needs fundamental change, and the sooner the better. It's
time to start the great debate on Charter change."
Well, the debate has begun. Executive Order 453 issued last month by Malacañang
Palace called for the establishment of a Consultative Commission, composed of
"not more than 50 persons" to look into a number of proposals for
charter change. Among them (and quoting from the Order):
· A shift from the Presidential-unitary system to a parliamentary-federal
system of government;
· The refocusing of economic policies in the present Constitution to match the
country's vision for global competitiveness; and
· A review of the economic policies which tend to hinder that vision and
adversely affect the people's welfare.
Members of the consultative body are charged to hold nationwide consultations
with various sectors of society as part of the process and to report (together
it seems with a draft of proposed revisions to the 1987 constitution) before the
end of the year. December 15 - less than 3 months after the first meeting, has
been set as the date for delivering a report to the president.
The 49 persons that have been appointed to the Consultative Commission face a
daunting task. Given the time scale, considered debate appears to be a luxury
that the members can ill afford and there is a real fear among certain sections
of he community that the outcome has already been predetermined by the very way
in which the mandate was framed. You see, considered debate was never part of
the agenda. This is a group that was hand-picked to come up with the outcome
that the majority in the Lower House wanted. To say that the debate has been
railroaded is a massive understatement.
At its first session on Wednesday 28th September and in what seems to have been
a prior "done deal," avowed federalist the Honourable Jose Abueva was
elected as chairman of the Commission. It was hardly a bipartisan appointment. A
reading of the transcript of the session gives the impression that the whole
election was manipulated with nominations being declared closed immediately
after the single nomination was made. The whole election process took barely 10
minutes. Vice chair, Brother Roland Dizon has already resigned his position -
ostensibly for reasons of health but it appears that he was under pressure from
the La Salle university community (from which he came) to resign before the
university became embroiled in controversy.
Many of those elected to the Commission are hardly of the mould who will accept
a "rubber stamp" view of the work being undertaken although the
Commission membership does appear heavily stacked in favour of those who favour
the parliamentary-federal system. That alone, means that its work will likely
come under attack once it completes its task. Speaking in October to members of
the Manila Overseas Press Club, House Speaker Mr. de Venecia appeared to suggest
that the outcome - within a narrow range of options - had already been agreed
upon. Not surprisingly, he spoke in favour of a unicameral legislature and
echoed the theme of the president quoted above that it is not the politicians
themselves that should be blamed for the climate of corruption but rather the
system that they work under. An interesting argument indeed and also a revealing
one. Perhaps even more revealing was Mr. de Venecia's statement in response to a
direct question that whatever option was finally chosen, the pork barrel would
remain. As he said (to paraphrase his words) the pork barrel is an essential
part of service delivery at the local level and many countries have a system of
Yes, that is true. But it comes at a serious cost in terms of misallocation of
national resources as Mr. Koizumi is now finding as he tries to unravel the
mother of all pork barrels, the Japanese postal savings system.
Government by expediency
Despite what may be said by the Speaker of the Lower House of Congress (and
wannabe prime minister under a transformed constitution that would shift
government from a presidential to a parliamentary system), the key issues
confronting the Philippines are not those surrounding charter change but rather
matters of governance. One interpretation is that Charter change is being
foisted on the people of the Philippines as a means of achieving a graceful exit
for President Arroyo while at the same time ensuring that her own supporters
control power so that she does not suffer the same fate as former President (Erap)
Estrada. The Speaker, Mr. de Venecia, believes that the president is willing to
step down no later than 2007 - or at most remain in office beyond that time as
no more than a figurehead president while real power is passed to parliament
(and to Mr. de Venecia). We are not so sure the president and the speaker of the
house are of one mind on this. He claims he has the agreement of the president.
We would only point out that we have doubts as to whether the president is of a
fixed view on this and believe that she may well change her mind. Power, after
all, is an aphrodisiac. As we noted above, the president may well have her own
plan for the end-game.
Meanwhile, while the debate plays itself out, all the signs are that the
president has adopted a bunker mentality and is going to be extremely difficult
to dislodge. Right now, government is in survival mode and the reform agenda has
been abandoned in all but name. Political accommodation in exchange for support
is the new game. Good and competent people are being eased (or in some cases,
pushed) out of government and replaced by others who are prepared to toe the
As has been pointed out many times, the depth of political appointments in the
civil service extend in the Philippines down to the Director 3 level - far more
appointments are at the whim of the president than in any other country of
Southeast Asia. The positions of some 12,000 public officials are at the
discretion of the president and beyond the purview of the Civil Service
Commission. Whereas, former presidents exercised this power of appointment
sparingly, the incumbent president has used this power of appointment to maximum
effect; in many cases as a means of extracting loyalty from provincial and local
government officials. Highly competent career officials (who cannot simply be
dismissed under the Civil Service Code) have been moved around for
"exigencies of the service". This is no more than a euphemism for
people who fail to bend or break the rules of good government as laid down in
the regulations, when it suits palace officials to do so.
We are seeing more and more talk of "emergency rule" and pre-emptive
responses with Malacañang Palace taking a tough line on demonstrations - using
water cannons and beatings to disperse lawful demonstrators. Recently the Makati
police chief was removed from office because Makati Mayor Binay (a leader among
the opposition forces) had allowed demonstrations to take place in Makati City,
Manila's premier business district, and the local police chief had failed to
break up what was to all intents and purposes a legal demonstration
(inconvenient perhaps, but legal). In parallel to this development has come a
gag on public officials speaking out, even when called to do so by a
congressional inquiry. Many believe that this amounts to suppression of
information and the constitutional rights of citizens. Say "goodbye"
to the system of checks and balances.
One of the major problems of the Philippines has been that there has been too
much democracy - resulting in a national paralysis of "all talk and no
action." But acting tough - especially in a democracy - has to be no more
than a means to an end; and an end-game that strengthens the country as a whole
rather than the ruling elite. Unfortunately in the present case we see signs of
the reverse happening. Rather than taking a tough stance in order to clean up
the system and improve both transparency as well as governance, toughness is
being used to preserve the opaque and local vested interests.
In such circumstances, the country can still progress but it will under-perform.
Neither the Philippines nor the presidency are likely to achieve the greatness
A fresh crisis in the making
We do not buy the line that the problems of the Philippines are systemic and
that a change from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government will
cure the ills of this country and open the path to a glorious future. That is
what proponents of the unicameral parliamentary and federal system would have us
In late October, and after a heated debate, the committee of the consultative
commission looking at the future form of government voted overwhelmingly - by a
margin of 32 to 7 - in favour of a unicameral and federal parliamentary system
for the Philippines. The margin was not surprising and the cynics may well
wonder why the vote was not unanimous given the biased manner in which this body
was set up. After all, the instructions "from above" appear to have
been for the commission to come up with recommendations for just that.
The matter has still to be debated - along with all the other recommendations -
within plenary but it is clear that this recommendation is more than likely to
be included in the final report of the commission, which is due to be submitted
to the president in mid-December and who may then refer it to Congress.
Now, as we remarked earlier, we are not saying that revision to the constitution
is not warranted. Clearly the present document has been found wanting in several
areas and some fine tuning may be appropriate. Indeed, the commission itself has
made the point that it is not throwing out the 1987 constitution; merely it is
Well, turning government on its head hardly sounds like a refinement to us.
Indeed, despite protestations to the contrary, abandoning one form of government
for a different form changes the nature of the entire Republic of the
Philippines and may well alter the course of the nation's history. The worst
case scenario is that the entire country will fracture as an entity. How this
can be pitched as a refinement boggles the mind.
We cannot understand either why it is that a "federal, unicameral
parliamentary system" appear to be being bundled together as a "take
it or leave it" package. The three issues involved are entirely different.
A bad year for governance
This has been a bad year for governance in this country and the entire
debate over constitutional change has the characteristics of a smoke screen to
take the heat and the focus off the ineptitude and downright deceit that appears
to be the hallmark of the current administration. As this was being written the
press has reported a fresh wave of killings in Central Luzon with labour leaders
being gunned down with impunity. At the same time two more senior officials have
fled the country. Former Agriculture Secretary, Luis "Cito" Lorenzo
Jr., and under-secretary Jocelyn "Joc-Joc" Bolante boarded flights
just hours before they were scheduled to appear before a Senate Inquiry into the
alleged mismanagement of a multi-million-peso fertilizer fund during the 2004
election (in which funds intended for distribution to poor rural communities to
buy fertilizer were distributed to Metro Manila cities such as Pasay that does
not have a single farm within its boundaries). Sadly, such events now pass for
Transparency International has now placed the Philippines in the same league as
Afghanistan, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Libya, Nepal and Uganda in
perceptions of the level of corruption. It is not hard to understand why that
So, back to constitutional questions. Already as a result of corruption and poor
governance, foreign investment into the Philippines is at an all time low.
Globally, investors are wary as they have been ever since the Asian financial
meltdown. Many are putting their surplus cash into US Treasury bonds, which is
one reason why the US dollar has held up as well as it has. Aside from a few
countries such as China, investment flows globally have all but dried up. The
Philippines needs desperately to turn on the tap. Changing from a central to a
federal system of government - and the need for a transitory regime - hardly
seems a good way to convince investors to come in. (In fairness, we should also
note that the consultative commission's committee on the national economy voted
to eliminate the foreign nationality restrictions and requirements of the
constitution on all public utilities, education, media, land and natural
resources. If this recommendation is adopted, it will be a step in the right
Instead of abolishing the Senate, why not transform it by giving it regional
electorates - say two representatives from each of the 17 regions of the
Philippines? Instead of placing all power in an unelected prime minister, who -
if Malaysia and Singapore are any models to follow - would regard it as a
lifetime sinecure, why not distribute powers between the President and a Prime
Minister (and give each a maximum term).
To ensure better governance, why not professionalise the civil service? A good
start would be to abolish the ability of the President to make more than 10,000
appointments of people who serve at presidential pleasure . Another measure
would be to make Cabinet secretaries truly responsible for the management of the
departments they run. At present, the presidential appointees within their ranks
can be very effective saboteurs of any reform efforts from the top.
Of course, a smaller central government and devolution of power to the
provincial level can be achieved under the present system. It does not require a
fracturing of the country, which could be the result under a federal system.
There is a widespread belief within the community that behind the current debate
is a series of hidden agendas. It is already clear that members of the lower
house of Congress would be the greatest beneficiaries of a unicameral system. It
is equally clear that any outcome from the consultative commission that is
acceptable to the House would be unacceptable to the Senate and vice-versa. The
likely scenario to emerge in the early part of 2006 is that the president will
refer the recommendations to Congress where the Lower House will convene to vote
on the amendments, inviting the Senators to a joint session in which it will
have the overwhelming numbers. On the other hand, the Senate will take the view
that each chamber will have to meet separately and each approve the proposed
constitutional amendments. The result will be that the matter will be put to the
Supreme Court for resolution. The legislature will be in a state of gridlock.
The country as a whole, will suffer further.
The winner of course, from any stalemate will be President Arroyo. A failure of
the constitutional review process will mean a reversion to the status quo. And
there you probably have the end-game from the presidential standpoint.