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Analysis

Stonewalling stalls social reform

/ 01:35 AM February 05, 2014

Over the past few weeks, key social reform programs designed to redistribute the nation’s wealth more broadly have stalled as the Aquino administration stonewalled against public demands for their accelerated implementation.

On Feb. 1, Malacañang rebuffed calls by Catholic bishops for the ouster of Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes of the Department of Agrarian Reform because of the “sluggish” implementation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (Carper). The rejection came after the Palace dismissed on Jan. 5 demands by members of the Social Security System, the state’s pension fund for private-sector workers, to  stop the increase of monthly premiums by 0.6 percent. The increase came amid outrage among SSS members over the award by the fund’s board of directors bonuses amounting to P10 million to eight directors as incentives for “good performance” in 2012, while the Government Service Insurance System slugged its  members  with higher monthly  premium rates. The increase of the premiums had the marks of a shell game under which, as the metaphor goes, one robs Peter to pay Paul.

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In brushing aside demands for the firing of De los Reyes, the administration not only stonewalled to keep him but also flaunted its decision at the face of the bishops. A spokesperson of President Aquino said: “The DAR under Secretary De los Reyes continues to work diligently to issue and validly serve all notices of coverage before June 2014, to enable the DAR to distribute CARP-covered agricultural lands beyond 2014, as allowed by the Carper Law (Republic Act No. 9700).”

The spokesperson said the agrarian reform program would be completed before the end of the President’s term: “The administration’s commitment that the land acquisition and distribution component of the program will be completed by 2016 still remains.” Another Palace spokesperson said De los Reyes “continues to enjoy the President’s trust and confidence.” With this solid backing of the President who is content with mediocrity, no wonder De los Reyes is smirking in his photo in the newspapers, impervious to criticism of his performance.

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But what about his record of performance, which is the issue raised against him by the bishops? According to newspaper reports, some Catholic bishops wrote a letter to the President seeking De los Reyes’ removal for his alleged failure to meet the distribution target of the CARP. The bishops also sought an overhaul of the DAR leadership, saying the department was able to distribute only 314,422 hectares of land from July 2010 to June 2013, when the target was supposed to be 1.2 million hectares.

The bishops pointed out that there was a need to fast-track the implementation of Carper, as the deadline for the distribution of land is June 14. The Palace, however, said the administration was committed that as long as notices of coverage had been given, farmers’ claims will still be processed after the deadline.

At the rate De los Reyes is performing, there is no reason to believe that the administration’s target would be met. Neither is the administration applying pressure on the DAR to push its leadership to end its lethargy. Is this a symptom of reform fatigue or waning political will?

Clearly, in ignoring the bishops’ demands, the President does not care very much about their reactions. In doing so, he virtually mocked them and dared them to do their worst. The President is not listening to the  voice of the people from below, probably in the belief that his popularity is unassailable no matter what he does, right or wrong—a belief anchored on opinion polls. In spiting the bishops, the President has apparently come to believe in his infallibility: Big Brother knows all,  and what’s best for everyone.

But there are warning signs of erosion and vulnerability in his popularity ratings. He should guard against skating on thin ice.

According to the results of the Social Weather Stations’ January 2014 survey, public satisfaction with the Aquino administration remained “very good” despite a decline in its net satisfaction rating. The survey results showed that 71 percent of the respondents were “satisfied,” 10 percent were “ambivalent,” and 19 percent were “dissatisfied” with the government’s performance. According to the SWS grading system, the survey still resulted in a net score of “very good” +51, down five percentage points from +56 recorded in September. Some commentators have interpreted the decline to the lackluster response to the catastrophic disasters (typhoons and earthquake) that hit the country in the previous quarter. One commentator said the survey results “should be a warning that the administration is vulnerable to public opinion.” Some previous surveys have registered sharp drops in the satisfaction and trust ratings of the administration.

The administration has increasingly come under scathing criticism over a number of issues including incompetence in responding to crises, the pork barrel scam, and the expansion of the executive’s use of the state’s fiscal resources for political patronage.

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TAGS: agrarian reform, amando doronila, Analysis, Aquino government, CARP, Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, DAR Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes, Government, opinion
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