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No Free Lunch

Our biggest block

Politics is like cholesterol. It can be good or bad, but it’s the latter that gets all the attention because its effects are far more conspicuous and damaging. I have long been describing politics to be our national malady. With the way bad politics and bad politicians pervade in this country, “pestilence” may be the more proper term.

A recent Inquirer editorial concluded: “If the country doesn’t look out, politics may yet again prove to be the economy’s undoing.” It quoted Moody’s Investors Service in pointing to the administration’s push for federalism as a “downside risk” for the economy. Moody’s had added that President Duterte’s “contentious policies on law and order,” along with various political controversies, are harming the Philippines’ attractiveness to financial and real investors alike.

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I’m often led to conclude that politics, especially the deeply divisive kind that our current leaders seem to be foisting on us on a daily basis, has been the greatest obstacle to strengthening our economy and building our national character. The political sideshow that accompanied the President’s recent State of the Nation Address put in stark focus the dark side of our politics, played out in a vital political institution by self-serving individuals claiming to be representatives of the people.

As I continue moving around Mindanao on work to track the economic outlook for the island region, I encounter much cynicism about its economic future in the face of the persistent prominence of politicians of the wrong kind. We’ve heard the typical stories time and again.

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There are local chief executives whose first question to a would-be large investor in his municipality is “What’s in it for me?”—and throws hurdles in the latter’s way if the answer is not to their liking. There are those who demand having some stake in the business of the prospective investor. And there are those who systematically acquire businesses in their locality while in power, through means both fair and foul, and end up controlling most key businesses in the town or province by the time they complete the maximum three terms as chief executive. There are those who use the annual business permit renewal as leverage to extract favors from the firms they host, in the form of supply contracts, jobs for close relatives, cronies or friends, or, at worst, outright bribes masquerading as arbitrary and spurious fees and charges.

One dictionary defines politics as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other geographical area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” Politics need not be a bad word, then, the way it has come to be widely regarded. I remember how, as adviser to past presidential candidate Eddie Villanueva, I would hear him express the need to transform “politics” from being a bad word in the Filipino vocabulary, to one that carries a positive connotation.

What the country and its people have long needed is principled politics—the kind built on the principle that power is to be wielded in pursuit of the common good, and that power ultimately resides in the people, not in the leaders they vest with it.

We need political parties that are not mere labels and vehicles for self-serving politicians to attain and maintain power, but proponents of distinct and consistent principles and philosophies to guide our collective pursuit of the common good. We need a leader who can rally the people he serves in a unified pursuit of their shared ideals and aspirations—not one who imposes his peculiar preferences, prejudices and personality quirks in an errant pursuit of dubious goals.

Politics must complement sound economics, and not get in its way, toward uplifting the common good. It’s not the government structure that needs to change; rather, it’s our dysfunctional politicians and the bad politics they foster. Unless and until we have politicians who put the common good above self-gain, politics will remain our biggest block to creating far more jobs and livelihoods, and sustaining vibrant growth in an economy that draws from everyone’s energies and uplifts the wellbeing of all.

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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TAGS: economics, Mindanao, politics
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