Two years on
Two years into the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, is the Philippines better off?
Florid rhetoric is, of course, par for the course, even expected, when it comes to standard government chatter, and so deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte once again skated close to eye-crossing hyperbole when she said, in a statement released on the eve of the second anniversary of Mr. Aquino’s assumption into office, that “No longer is the Filipino mired in paralysis and despair; he has seen the seemingly difficult tasks achieved, and is one with the government in creating a society that is truly just, prosperous and equitably progressive.”
People can’t be blamed if they laugh at Valte’s extravagant claims. To declare that the Filipino is “no longer … mired in paralysis and despair” is to invite accusations of delusion and blindness. More dangerously, spin like it carries the risk of the public eventually losing confidence in this government’s ability to size up the country’s huge and stubborn problems with clarity and honesty and, more importantly, to tackle them with enough brass-tacks conviction to bring about actual, long-term changes to the system.
Good thing that, official pabulum aside, Malacañang’s appraisal of the last two years also carried, later on in the statement, a candid corrective—that “while much has been achieved, much still needs to be done.”
Indeed. Mr. Aquino’s administration has, in the last few months, basked in a succession of positive news and assessments, mostly from foreign observers, that his efforts to combat corruption in government, install processes that promote greater transparency and accountability in official transactions and set a much higher bar for public governance have resulted in a renewed sense of optimism for the country’s prospects.
Naysayers have made much of Mr. Aquino’s drive to remove Chief Justice Renato Corona from the Supreme Court and prosecute former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for her alleged misdeeds in office as, at the very least, politically distracting and economically harmful. But much of the public, not to mention the international community, appears to have largely seen the effort as a necessary test of the government’s commitment to breaking off with a much-compromised past and ridding itself of the poisonous political miasma it has inherited.
“The Philippines looks poised to resume a period of strong growth … [and Aquino] looks likely to generate just enough reform momentum to get the job done,” said economic analyst Ruchir Sharma in his just-released book “Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles.” The Wall Street Journal pegged its rosy assessment on the country’s sound economic fundamentals under Aquino: “The Philippines is better prepared than in the past to withstand a downturn with a stronger government balance sheet and a robust domestic economy. Foreign reserves are high enough to fight capital flight.”
But against these encouraging signs are the ever-grim realities. Poverty and deprivation continue to afflict a majority of Filipinos, and much of the incremental economic improvements experts and observers have lauded have yet to make any discernible impact on their lives. The Aquino administration’s record on human rights remains close to dismal, with no successful prosecutions so far against violators. Jovito Palparan, Ruben Ecleo and Joel Reyes—to mention just three high-profile indictees—are all still at large, their political clout no doubt playing a central part in their successful flouting of the law. And the Ampatuan massacre case seems more and more on life support, as many witnesses have disappeared, or bolted the government’s ineffective Witness Protection Program, only to turn up dead.
Mr. Aquino did well by personally assuring farmers recently that his government will work on the full implementation of the agrarian reform program by the end of his term. But until that ambitious promise is not only fulfilled, but also felt at gut level—along with the other reforms and initiatives the government has trumpeted—the public will remain skeptical of official claims of progress.
The Philippines has been down this road before, but the momentum didn’t last. Mr. Aquino must use every day of his remaining four years to ensure that, this time, it does.
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