Books on The Philippines
Update No: 038 - (27/02/07)
Election season is well and truly upon us. The country goes to
the polls in mid May. Up for grabs are 50 percent of the Senate seats (the
Philippines has a bicameral Congress with six-year terms but in which half of
the upper house retires every three years) as well as local government posts
from provincial governor downwards.
While there was talk well into December that the Administration might push ahead
with Charter Change and extend the term of the present Congress without the need
for re-election, the negative reaction from the public at large was so swift and
so shrill, that the Administration quickly backed off that course. Charter
change has been returned to the back-burner for the time being but don't count
on it staying there for long.
With the period for the filing of certificates of candidacy for the 12
Senatorial posts already closed and with the filing date for the gubanatorial
and local government posts looming, the campaigning is already underway.
Sadly, this election will be fought on traditional lines. Policy options are
taking a back seat to the horse-trading among political personalities and those
personalities continue to change horses depending on who will give them a better
deal. Both parties appear to have healthy war chests so election spending will
no doubt give the economy a shot in the arm over the next few months. Nobody
will go hungry during election week.
Alongside the two main teams are a number of "independents". These are
candidates who failed to get official endorsement from the major groupings but
who feel they have sufficient resources to be able to run a successful campaign
anyway. By and large, they are people who are aligned with the Administration,
at least in heart if not "all the way".
The opposition of course (campaigning under the banner of "Genuine
Opposition" or "GO") appears to be largely under the control of
former president Joseph Estrada who is hoping that a groundswell of support from
the masa will bring vindication to his stunted presidency and freedom from his
present house arrest-not to mention absolvement from the plunder charges he now
faces. The entire opposition campaign appears to be set around discrediting the
legitimacy of the Arroyo team.
Ranged against the Opposition is the Administration's "Team Unity"
ticket which is out to proclaim the message that under President Arroyo,
Filipinos have never had it so good and while the masa may still be poor and
hungry, good things will come their way eventually if only they hang in with the
incumbents. A decisive victory for the administration will resolve once and for
all the legitimacy issue and allow government to concentrate its energies over
the next three years on delivering on its promises-that at least is the official
line and so far as it goes, it is probably correct.
President Arroyo's team will win the election. That is a fearless prediction.
And they will win it decisively. No doubt, they will hope to obtain that
decisive victory through a fair and impartial vote count, but precautions will
be taken to ensure the victory regardless.
Indeed, they may well win fair and square. Mr. Estrada has been out of the
limelight for six years now and in actuality his star has already faded. If
elections are to be won or lost on the basis of the "message" then the
Administration candidates seem to be ahead of the pack already.
It does little good to claim that while the economy may be improving, it would
have done even better had Ms. Arroyo not been at the helm. This is not a
presidential election and there is no alternative leader (other than Mr.
Estrada) for the opposition to rally around. Those who may be eyeing a bid for
the presidency in 2010 know the score and are maintaining a very low profile. It
would be imprudent on the local political scene to do otherwise.
Beside which, if President Arroyo gets her way and has the force of numbers to
bring about Charter Change she may be around for a lot longer than 2010. Even if
she does leave office at that time she will be mindful of what happened to
previous presidents who became controversial and will not want to suffer the
same fate. But there again, President Estrada did not come from the elite who
are used to governing this country. If the powerful clans continue to call the
shots she will have nothing to fear-which is one reason President Arroyo is
unwilling to cross them in any fundamental way.
In this regard we are reminded of the famous quote of Lord Palmerston, a British
politician of the mid-nineteenth century: "Britain has no permanent
allies-only permanent interests."
That famous quotation holds sway in the Philippines today. The ruling elite of
the country has no permanent allies, only permanent interests to protect. How
else can you explain the permutations and combinations evident on the local
political scene? It is the hallowed principle of the "divine right to
But before we get too carried away, it is worth remembering that true
participatory democracy that many in the West urge upon the Philippines (and to
which many Filipinos themselves aspire) is really only a product of the last
fifty years or so and that for most of the last millennium from Magna Carta
through to the present, politics was about dividing the spoils among those who
controlled the wealth. Even the good Lord Palmerston, quoted above, purchased
his seat in Parliament and regarded it as his right to do so. Can we complain
when Filipino politicians do the same?
So what is in store for the next three years?
There has rarely been a government going into an election that has not presided
over an expanding economy, lowering inflation and an improving business climate.
As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, statistics can be manipulated to
serve any purpose-just about!
Gains have been made in recent years but, as many of the international rating
agencies point out, the Philippines is not out of the woods just yet. While a
number of these same agencies would claim that the "outlook" has
improved, the actual rating given to the Philippines has not yet been
reassessed. None of this of course stops the government from trumpeting its
achievements and glossing over any criticism.
So it comes as no surprise that in recent days, the president's chief economic
adviser unveiled a new three-year plan to boost economic growth to 7 percent in
2007, 8 percent in 2008 and 9 percent in 2009. Dubbed as "Plan 789",
the strategy seeks to accelerate economic growth to the extent that it will
match-if not surpass-the growth of neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.
The country's gross domestic product (GDP) grew by only 5.4 percent in 2006,
although this was faster than the 5.0 percent growth registered in 2005. If the
GDP manages to grow by 7 percent in 2007, this will be the fastest rate since
the 6.7 percent expansion registered in 1988.
GDP growth achieved during the Arroyo administration from 2001 averaged 4.37
percent. This was already better than the 3.86 percent average during the term
of President Aquino, 3.83 percent during the regime of the late strongman
Ferdinand Marcos, 3.76 percent during the time of President Fidel Ramos, and
2.93 percent during the term of jailed President Joseph Estrada.
Since assuming office in 2001 the Arroyo administration had sustained GDP growth
for 24 successive quarters since 2001. This is the longest uninterrupted growth
spurt the Philippines has recorded for the past 25 years.
The government's long-term strategy will continue to focus on the 10-point
agenda, which includes balancing the government budget by 2008, providing
education for all, automating the elections, improving transportation and
digital infrastructure, terminating hostilities, healing the wounds of EDSA,
providing electricity and water for all barangays, creating six to 10 million
jobs, decongesting Metro Manila, and developing Clark and Subic.
So far, of the 10 points in the agenda, the government will admit to failing
only in two-"automating the elections" and "healing the wounds of
EDSA' or uniting the hostile political factions in the country.
Growth does not come without a cost
While the first three years of the Arroyo administration may be regarded as the
formative years during which time it was hoped that President Arroyo would walk
the talk and bring about cohesive, inclusive and principled governance to the
Philippines, it is the past three years-since the election of 2004-that that
have established the hallmark of her governance.
The downside of achieving progress on the economic front has been a retreat from
even the limited progress made in achieving rule of law and embracing the
principle of sanctity of contracts to a culture whereby those within the ruling
elite often appear to act with impunity and brazen disregard for the
consequences-legal or moral.
The watershed of course, was the revelation in mid-2005 that President Arroyo
cheated in the 2004 election-or to be closer to the truth-that she won by
out-cheating her opponents. Almost immediately that fact came to light the
ruling elite closed ranks and adopted the line that "those who are not for
us are in fact against us".
So we are now faced with a Philippines where the economy is showing signs of
improvement and, certainly, those who have the ability to invest in stocks or
hedge on currencies are doing rather well. But it is also true that foreign
investors continue by and large to sit on the sidelines and that as a result,
unemployment and underemployment remain chronic problems. New investments and
new jobs that would redistribute wealth to the lower elements of society are not
yet happening and, indeed, much of the basic infrastructure remains to be put in
place. This will take a lot longer than three years.
For its part government spokespersons would claim that President Arroyo has
produced the best income distribution of all four post-Marcos administrations
but others would counter that progress has been so infinitesimal that the
verdict has to remain out at the present time.
It is the poor that are switching from buying food to buying cell phone loads
that are feeding the profits of the telcos that are feeding the rich.
The most likely outcome for the next three years at least is for more of the
same. Barring unforeseen global developments, the economy will continue to make
modest progress-probably better than previous-but not at the rate the government
forecasts. Political dissent will continue to be stifled, especially where
entrenched interests are threatened. Much of government as well as the armed
forces will likely remain in denial believing that economic progress can only be
achieved if society becomes more disciplined.
Sadly, measures to bring about the discipline this country sorely needs are the
wrong measures in the wrong places. If you are a provincial labour organiser or
a journalist seeking to expose malfeasance then you will continue to be
considered a threat to entrenched interests and suffer the consequences. Whether
or not the perceived threat comes from local politicians or national ones, the
result will be the same. The Palmerston Axiom will continue to hold sway.
But expect little to be done by way of improvements to the quality of life for
Juan dela Cruz. Traffic will continue to be chaotic, the only family respite
will be found by spending remittances in one of the major shopping malls and
during typhoons, giant billboards (which curiously now are all being
reconstructed) will continue to pose a threat to human life. Buses on EDSA,
Manila's main artery, will continue to pose danger to life and limb. After all,
isn't it the generals who own the bus companies?
Life in the Philippines will continue much as it has done before. The rich will
stay rich; the poor will stay poor and business will continue to make modest
gains. After, all business can operate anywhere provided there is a modicum of
stability and, if we are to end this commentary on a positive note, it would be
that all other things considered, the Arroyo administration has succeeded,
against earlier predictions of providing better stability and predictability.
Progress has been modest but there has been progress. For this small benefit,
most are thankful.