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2020: Time for ‘tamang pamamahala’

/ 04:10 AM January 10, 2020

President Duterte continues to enjoy popular support on the fourth year of his term, largely due to the public’s perception that he is performing well. He may well finish his term enjoying such perception.

The durable support also comes from the following conditions:

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First, landmark legislation like the free tertiary education law, the Universal Health Care Act and the Free Irrigation Service Act that were mere aspirations for a long time, but have now been enacted into law.

Second, the much-hyped “Build, build, build” (BBB) program, which, though mostly a continuation of the past administration’s PPP (public-private partnership) projects, will become tangible national assets and end up as strategic accomplishments.

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Third, the persistent populist stance that the President demonstrates, alongside his populist legislative priorities and pronouncements, continues to create a political image that sides with the disenfranchised and marginalized.

Fourth, Mr. Duterte’s politics oscillates in between ethnic, gender and class politics, and even elite politics. This atypical “identity politics” has even cast him as an anti-elite and outsider politician. He successfully portrays a benevolently punitive leadership that feeds on Filipino political culture by appealing to the sentiments of sectoral aggrupations.

But, what animates his leadership is also the polarizing impact of mitigating and negotiating between competing and conflicting political and economic interests. His disruptive and whimsical pronouncements in the Manila Water and Maynilad case, for instance, has triggered alarm bells that they may risk sensitive investments and prospective capital resources. A fair assessment of the concessionaires’ performance—how successful they have been at solving the water crisis of the late ‘90s and the infusion of billions of investments to manage the fast-growing demand of Metro Manila and its environs—was unfairly upstaged with fiery off-the-hip, anti-business language. Investor confidence quickly went south when threats of the abrogation of the contracts sparked uncertainty about the stability of government projects. You can imagine the worries of BBB investors.

To quote Raul Fabella, professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines’ School of Economics: “Who will invest long-term if the government can expropriate at will? What private banks will make loans? Only the cronies! Marcos cronies, recall, brought the country to its knees. The economic team’s first duty on competitiveness is to plug the hole, not cosmetize it.”

But the Duterte administration’s grand narrative about radical change, the goal of making government more functional, the federalist initiative, and the promise of inclusive growth beyond the six-year presidential timeline all seem to have created an atmosphere of political continuation. And the overwhelming midterm electoral victory of the administration candidates has put in place another bastion of support and political continuity.

Absent a credible and formidable opposition, populist and strongman politics that engenders illiberal and even authoritarian tendencies will continue to gain momentum, make waves and even muster support in the Philippine political arena. That can pose a danger to the democratic project. With barely two and half years remaining in Mr. Duterte’s political timeline, the current political juncture calls for an alternative approach.

Proper governance or “tamang pamamahala” is characterized by a political environment marked by sensible, responsible and accountable policies and programs at the national and local levels of government. It seeks to regain public trust through transparency and accountability, responsive public services and governance by rule of law. A functional bureaucracy is anchored on fiscal governance that arrests the costly leaks that corruption siphons off from our limited resources.

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Further, government actions and activities should be open, clear and responsible. Through the responsive delivery of public services, mendicancy and a dole-out mentality among some citizens would be replaced with institutionalized citizen-focused national and local government services. Lastly, governance by rule of law embraces policy and regulatory stability as well as programmatic leadership based on the basic democratic principles of the country’s Constitution. This means the needs of the people are ascertained and addressed through institutional services and not through partisan allocations. By being transparent and accountable, the government is always subject to democratic processes. And through rules-based national and local governance, a stable, sensible legal and regulatory environment would help create a globally competitive country that allows new investments to flow and speed up economic activities.

Or is asking for “tamang pamamahala” like asking for the moon?

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Dindo Manhit is founder and managing director of Stratbase Group.

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