Time for reckoning by President Aquino
President Aquino has sought to clarify that he is not seeking reelection. But his words have not doused speculation about his wanting a second term and added more confusion to the issue.
Using the remaining 21 months of his presidency to push for term extension by Charter change and a power feud with the judiciary is a disservice to the country. Prudence dictates that the President now pay attention to many unsettled issues such as the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the passage of the freedom of information bill, the Maguindanao massacre case, and the pork barrel scam.
Justifying a term extension supposedly to continue with the “reforms” initiated under his watch is treading on flimsy ground. Equating the accomplishments recited in the last State of the Nation Address—the kilometers of roads built, the high GDP growth, etc.—with reform is being whimsical. GDP growth is made meaningless by continuing joblessness and income disparities now seen as one of the highest in Asia.
Only a few families are happy under Mr. Aquino’s administration: Some of his financial backers in 2010, along with other tycoons, doubled their wealth equivalent to the gross earnings of 60 million Filipinos. Crony capitalism is alive and well under the President. The election pledge to curb corruption is belied by his priority pork barrel legislation since 2010 and his own pork disguised as the Disbursement Acceleration Program. The investigation of pork scams has been exclusivist, with mainly members of the opposition targeted, leaving presidential allies linked to the controversies unscathed.
To be real, reform needs sweeping and structural solutions to democratize and equalize opportunities across all classes, not only in economic growth but also in governance. But four years of the Aquino administration have only increased the number of family dynasties and widened income disparities; the rule of law and the principle of check and balance have been eroded by a Congress beholden to the President through pork, coupled with relentless attacks on the judiciary.
The claim of a “transformative presidency” stands on hollow ground and the “daang matuwid” shibboleth has all but become an object of social satire. The fall in survey ratings dramatizes an increasing disillusionment with Mr. Aquino’s performance.
Indeed, power begets power: The greater the public dissatisfaction, the tighter the grip on power. The “term extension” scheme—itself an impeachable offense—is thus nothing but a desperate measure meant to extend the power of the ruling coalition for lack of a winnable presidential candidate in 2016. It is being floated to prevent “balimbingan” (turncoatism), which can cripple the ruling coalition once Mr. Aquino confirms that he will step down in 2016.
But it is turning out to be a futile exercise with costly political backlash. Term extension, amendment of the Constitution’s political provisions, and attempts to clip the powers of the Supreme Court have opened cracks in the Aquino administration as well as in some political parties in the ruling coalition. In the provinces, turncoatism is starting to tear apart the ruling Liberal Party this early. The threats on judicial independence and pork scams have polarized the country, with lawyers, Church leaders, civil libertarians, business groups, and even former Aquino supporters coalescing with opposition multisectoral formations.
Instead of a feeble attempt to perpetuate power, Mr. Aquino can do the country good for the rest of his term by ending the pork barrel system and using his powers for the enactment of pending crucial bills, concluding the peace process with the MILF, and resuming peace talks with the National Democratic Front. A new team of economists should look for bold and strategic programs to address unemployment, poverty, and other development issues.
But the question remains: whether Mr. Aquino can live up to these expectations given the limited time. Does he realize that popularity alone does not make a good president? Does he know that all post-Marcos presidents began their term with a relatively high popularity rating, only to end with critical negative ratings—all because they failed to deliver what they promised despite the vast powers and resources at their command? Is he aware that toying with term extension will only fuel calls for his resignation, which some sectors are now voicing?
Mr. Aquino began his presidency on the wrong foot—allocating pork barrel to make Congress subservient to Malacañang under the system of political patronage, favoring the business elite as drivers of economic development instead of unleashing the potential of the farmers by genuine land distribution and modern agriculture, and allowing investments in extractive industries instead of boosting job-generating manufacturing. By supporting the pork barrel system, the President encouraged national and local politicians to make off with taxpayer money and state resources through fictitious transactions.
More troubles lie ahead to haunt Mr. Aquino. Crises loom involving water and power supply even as the intra-elite rivalry for the next presidency intensifies. At the rate blunders are being committed and his trust ratings are dropping, the ruling coalition will be marginalized by party- or coalition-switching.
It’s a time for reckoning by the President.
Bobby M. Tuazon is policy director of CenPEG (Center for People Empowerment in Governance) and a former head of the University of the Philippines Manila’s political science program.
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