Aquino’s lasting legacy
President Aquino has more than once remarked with humility that he “is only standing on the shoulders of the other leaders who came before him.”
Whatever progress unbiased commentators have observed during the last three to four years (and there are many outside agencies and individuals who have heaped praise on the recent accomplishments of the Philippine economy and society in general) cannot be attributed solely to the present administration but is a result of incremental improvements over a period of more than 25 years.
To his mother the President owes the restoration of democratic institutions, including the crafting and subsequent approval of the basic law of the land. The Philippine Constitution, though imperfect, is the highest symbol of the rule of law that is the basis of any democratic society. Subsequent presidents, also with their respective weaknesses and limitations, contributed to the strengthening of market institutions; a stable financial system (considered one of the best in Southeast Asia); prudent fiscal policies; a gradual increase in investments in infrastructures, especially in the countryside (the most prominent of which is the Philippine nautical highway); and the energy sector’s reduced dependence on imported fossil fuels.
Whatever his critics may say, I am of the opinion that the greatest legacy that President Aquino will leave to future generations is the institutional foundation of good governance. He is personally incorrupt and has surrounded himself with a critical mass of people in his Cabinet whose integrity is unquestionable. He was not exaggerating when he recently told his successor, whoever that may be: “I can promise him that there is a huge difference between what I inherited and what he will inherit.”
To cite concrete examples, past studies of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank pinpointed the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Education as the most corrupt agencies of the government.
Under the President’s leadership, they are now bastions of integrity and effectiveness.
In the last four years he has fostered an environment that encourages the emergence of institutions that safeguard against corruption: a very proactive Bureau of Internal Revenue that is better equipped to reduce tax evasion; a real balance of power among the three branches of government (which he should be the last to undo by constitutional change); the flourishing of civil society organizations and social media that are more effective watchdogs against corruption; and more effective regulatory bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, Insurance Commission, and Professional Regulation Commission.
Add to these the outstanding agencies he inherited from the past: one of the best central banks in Asia, a totally incorrupt and highly efficient Philippine Export Zone Authority, and a caring and vigilant Department of Labor and Employment. Also deserving of special mention is the leadership in the Department of Tourism. It is no coincidence that these agencies I have enumerated continue to obtain favorable ratings in surveys and polls.
Given this critical mass of institutions that are required for inclusive economic and political development, the President should not really worry about who will replace him. Although he is entitled to “endorse a friend,” the next occupant of Malacañang will have very little freedom of movement to be corrupt. His successor will know that with any false move he makes, he can be impeached (we have already impeached a president and a chief justice). More than 1,000 of the biggest business organizations have signed an integrity pledge, in which they promise not to be instigators of corrupt practices (it takes two to tango). The growing use of social media will make it much easier to expose the nefarious practices of public officials. Everyone will be watching the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth, not only of the justices of the Supreme Court but also of all elected officials.
Instead of losing sleep over who will be elected the next president, he should be spending the remaining months he has to continue strengthening these institutions for good governance that will guarantee the sustainability of his admirable campaign against corruption.
Among the doables between now and the middle of next year (after which the political climate will overheat in preparation for the 2016 elections) are the passing of the freedom of information bill and the competition bill, and the amendment of the restrictive prohibitions on foreign investments in the Constitution. An FOI law will put more teeth in social media and other channels used by private citizens to monitor the behavior of public officials. The proposed competition law will address the continuing stranglehold that a few conglomerates controlled by the Filipino elite have over the economy, making inclusive economic growth more difficult. The removal of the restrictive provisions in the Constitution against foreign direct investments will also reduce monopolistic and oligopolistic forces in the domestic market and generate more employment for the burgeoning labor force.
It’s time to consider the Charter change proposal of Speaker Sonny Belmonte and other legislators who are vocal in saying that they will touch only the few economic provisions related to foreign direct investments and avoid any controversy related to the political system.
Bernardo M. Villegas ([email protected]) is senior vice president of the University of Asia and the Pacific.
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