Presidential hits and misses
It always happens that when the Philippines is on the verge of economic takeoff, there is a disaster—natural or manmade—that stalls its march to progress. Sometimes the national leadership itself is the source of the disaster.
To begin with, from being Asia’s second strongest economy in the 1960s, the Philippines was saddled by the corruption-ridden dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, which, in its dying months, had empty coffers and was defaulting on its loans with the economy in recession.
Inheriting the huge Marcos debt, Cory Aquino’s presidency was hit by both natural and manmade disasters: the earthquake that devastated Northern Luzon; the eruptions of Mount Pinatubo that blanketed Central Luzon with ash; and the successive coup attempts that set back the economy and took much of the steam out of the fervor following Edsa I.
Fidel V. Ramos’ presidency made some headway: dismantling monopolies, licking the power crisis, privatizing military bases, reforming the banking sector, and promoting a “Philippines 2000” export orientation. These enabled the country to withstand the 1997 Asian financial crisis, but it soon ran smack into the next one.
Joseph Estrada’s short-lived presidency put jueteng and insider deals in the spotlight as the sources of shenanigans by a person who did not seem to have the character to lead. That his name has 13 letters and that he was our 13th president may have nothing to do with his personal and our national misfortune, but as if the fallout from Edsa I were not disaster enough, Edsa II (his ouster) happened, closely followed by “Edsa Tres” (an attempt to restore him).
Average GDP was unspectacular during the combined 12 years of Cory (2.8 percent) and FVR (3.1 percent), and actually plummeted to 2.3 percent under Estrada.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo also went from winner to loser during her almost-10-year presidency. She instituted landmark revenue measures such as the 12-percent value-added tax, but her loss of credibility as a result of apparent poll fraud and the many corruption scandals during her term hobbled her economic savvy (focus on real estate, retail, tourism and BPOs), and kept GDP to a middling 4.1 percent average.
Noynoy Aquino inherited GMA’s economic gains and expanded her poverty alleviation/economic stimulus measures, like the conditional cash transfer program. But he was an infrastructure dwarf, losing sight of the bigger picture until too late as he pursued anticorruption cases. Average GDP during his term was 6.3 percent—the highest in decades.
P-Noy instituted reforms with far-reaching effects, like the K-to-12 program and the no-nonsense Bureau of Internal Revenue under Kim Henares. He had the balls to take on China and win the landmark ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the West Philippine Sea.
President Duterte is a bit of a loose cannon and thus unpredictable. His foul language and mailed-fist methods show that he is in the habit of having his way. His pronouncements and policies have been very divisive. But for all these, he should be given every chance to succeed. He has made sound Cabinet appointments (Lopez, Dominguez, Lorenzana) but also unsound ones (Andanar, Aguirre, Yasay). His focus on big-ticket infrastructure projects may help propel us to unprecedented double-digit growth rates and, despite his association with the Marcoses, he seems to be serious about fighting corruption.
We must take off economically and therefore we cannot afford the ouster of another sitting president. The impeachment complaint against Mr. Duterte is a reckless move that is leading to further polarization.
Certainly our presidential system is too personality-oriented. We must change our political system if necessary, so that the impact of presidential personalities will be less and the strength of our institutions will be more. Democracy should have nondisruptive ways of self-correction and renewal. We must have “faceless” leaders in the sense of governance being workmanlike, like a corporate CEO who may be readily replaced if he or she doesn’t perform. The better system may be a parliamentary system where there is a more flexible, collective aspect in the form of a political party with “team leadership.”
Ironically, it is the autocratic Mr. Duterte who may trigger the needed structural reforms. But then again, he may not.
Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.
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