In the midst of the acute power shortage in Mindanao, mounting criticism of his lethargic leadership style and the parlous performance of the economy, President Aquino reappeared in public last week from his spells of invisibility during crisis to announce that he was in charge.
The power shortage confronted the administration with its most severe economic challenge since it took office 20 months ago.
With Mindanao being increasingly paralyzed by eight-hour daily electricity outages, the President was forced to call a summit in April of affected sectors on the worsening crisis in Mindanao, home to 25 million Filipinos, following a dialogue in Malacañang a week ago between Mr. Aquino and Lualhati Antonino, chair of the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA).
The meeting sought to draw up immediate measures to address the shortage that left Mr. Aquino with little time to temporize.
The crisis that threatens to blow up into an economic emergency on the scale that paralyzed industrial capacity in Luzon at the end of the administration of his mother, President Cory Aquino, in 1992 did not come out of the blue.
The administration of President Fidel Ramos felt the full brunt of the power shortage he inherited from Cory Aquino, who did very little to prepare for its onslaught.
When the shortage became more severe, members of Congress and Mindanao residents warned the administration that the daily power outages would throw the country into a Dark Age similar to that experienced in the waning years of the Cory Aquino presidency—a legacy Mr. Aquino would be loathe to live with, for which it is unfair to hold him fully responsible.
The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industries (PCCI) said it had been warning about a looming power crisis in Mindanao since 2008, “and as late as 2011,” well into Mr. Aquino’s first two years.
Some Mindanao congressmen said they had called the administration’s attention to the recurrent electricity blackouts as early as 2010, so the President couldn’t say he had not been warned and had not anticipated the crisis.
Power output in Mindanao has been curtailed by dwindling energy production of aging hydroelectric plants and the failure to tap alternative sources of power.
Mr. Aquino admitted on March 25 that the government had neglected to address the Mindanao power shortage and asked the people to be patient—an approach that offered no concrete measures to increase the supply of electricity.
He said it would take time before measures could be put in place, noting that the P2.6-billion rehabilitation of the Agus VI hydroelectric power plant would take up to 30 months.
The plant was built in 1953 and was good for only 30 years, until 1983. Past presidents, including Cory Aquino, never addressed the problem. This is one way of saying, Mr. Aquino is not to blame for the crisis.
Tough luck for him. The problem flared up during his watch, but the emergency demands immediate short-term measures to halt the worsening short supply of power—not excuses or looking for scapegoats.
Impact on peace talks
Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said the power shortage would last until 2013.
MinDA officials on Thursday urged the administration to lay down a comprehensive road map aimed at solving the power crisis.
It warned that the failure to formulate a cohesive national policy to combat the shortage of electricity would have adverse effects on the island’s economic progress and, ultimately, determine the success or failure of peace talks with separatist rebels.
There are demands to sack Almendras, but that would be scapegoating. It would not generate power supply for Mindanao.
His removal would only deprive the President of a fall guy who would deflect flak from falling on him. This is the reason why it would not serve the President to fire Almendras.
In its statement calling for the drafting of a blueprint of concrete response to the power shortage, the PCCI emphasized that, “as strategically and correctly planned years before, lower power cost was the key driver in making businesses locate and thrive in Mindanao and would be a strong platform in achieving peace in the area.”
The issue of granting Mr. Aquino emergency powers to deal with the shortages has come up. Although the President is not keen on emergency powers, Ramos said there might be a need for special powers if reports in the media about the Mindanao crisis were true.
Ramos said he was given emergency powers by Congress to solve the eight to 12-hour brownouts in Metro Manila in 1992. Thanks to the electricity power law that was passed in his favor, he said, he was able to solve the crisis in 1993.
No luxury of time
The PCCI has also called on the government to come up with integrated short- and long-term strategies to address the problem, ensure the growth potential and continued operation of enterprises and industries on the island, and avert serious unemployment.
The Mindanao electricity emergency underlined the high profile of economic issues that have been sidelined by the Aquino administration and that are now calling attention to the high costs of economic neglect.
As he turned his attention to the crippling Mindanao crisis, the President was also forced to tackle government’s underspending on infrastructure.
On Tuesday, he told the Philippine Investment Forum that the government had ordered the acceleration of eight big ticket infrastructure projects under his public-private partnership (PPP) program to bolster economic growth that had bogged down to 3.7 percent last year from 7 percent the year before.
Critics have accused him of lacking urgency on the economic front, blaming the GDP plunge to the cut in government spending when pump-priming was needed.
For the first time, the Aquino administration faces a call to action to roll back the power shortage in Mindanao. He has no time to sit on it.