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Ephemeral euphoria

/ 12:09 AM February 26, 2015

(With the President very much in the spotlight today I thought it might be interesting to go back in time. So I dug out my analysis of him written in May 2010. Read it and see how you think he has done.)

Knowing the Philippines well, I’d say Sen. Benigno Aquino III faces an impossible task.

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He based his campaign on a moral revolution, a return to honesty and decency in government. The people voted for him because they wanted it, too. The sympathy they felt for his mother that they transferred to him only added to that. People want an honest government.

The trouble is, how will he do it? The corrupt and corrupted systems (there is a difference) are far too firmly entrenched. If he pushes for a clean government too early he’ll almost certainly fail, and his presidency will never recover. But if he does too little while he still has the ascendancy and the support of a large swath of the populace behind him, he’ll never achieve anything substantive sometime later. Caught between a rock and a hard place, indeed. I don’t envy him. Nor do I see a workable solution short of a dictatorship, and Philippine history does not look kindly on that one.

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The problem is how to deal with Congress. And if Gloria Arroyo becomes speaker, it will be even tougher. Her disruptive influence will undoubtedly continue. Sonny Belmonte would be a much more supportive House leader.

But even with support from the House and a possibly supportive Senate (Frank Drilon or Kiko Pangilinan), Aquino will have difficulties getting change through.

On just one small issue, pork barrel, Aquino is going to have to work out a way to deal with it. As I see it, he has three options:

  1. Reluctantly go along with it in the recognition that nothing will get done if he doesn’t continue it. And gradually encourage support for some reform.
  2. Agree to the pork barrel, but redirect it to funding education only until education is fully provided for in all its facets (classrooms, desks, books, pencils, uniforms, meals, better teacher pay, computers, playgrounds, sports equipment—the list is endless). Then, and only after all that is finished, roads and bridges. At fixed costs based on known standards.
  3. Take Congress head-on. Allow politicians to recommend projects to the National Economic and Development Authority, who will take their recommendation into its assessment when prioritizing projects.

Wherever he looks the system will defeat change unless he can find some miracle way to revolutionize society in the massive way needed. One small example: Putting some well-known top tax cheats in jail would work wonders. But the system will defeat efforts to achieve it. Just look at it: The Marcoses were kicked out for flagrant corruption, and instead of being in jail, three of them are now in political positions. Romeo Jalosjos had a house built especially for him in jail. He also enjoyed cable TV, a personal refrigerator, queen-size bed and hot-and-cold shower, among others.

Philippine presidents have enormous power, in part because they can violate the constitutional restrictions with impunity if they so choose. And as Arroyo so blatantly proved. But Congress is also a power that a president must deal with. So a Philippine president must pander to Congress unless he can get public opinion so strongly behind him that Congress wouldn’t dare oppose him. It’s a tough thing to achieve.

Ramos struck the right balance and got things done, but cleaning up the corrupted systems needed more than six years. Estrada let the gains slip away and Arroyo deliberately hastened their demise. The 39th most corrupt country in the world (out of 180 nations surveyed), one of the worst in Asia tells it. Reversing that is a Herculean task, one Aquino must face and begin to resolve.

Fidel Ramos was successful in executing change because he was an experienced leader and manager. Equally important was the fact that he recognized the importance of obtaining Congress’ support. He had frequent and regular meetings with Congress—the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council, which Arroyo let fade away. Aquino must revive the concept and the regularity.

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He must also regularly meet with sector leaders, and listen seriously to them. In my area, that’s businessmen. We don’t know him but we create the jobs that get people out of poverty; he needs us on his side. He needs to get our confidence in him and his administration. He will do it quickest by interacting.

And that’s true for all other sectors. Aquino must interact personally with them. He said he would not isolate himself, so let’s hope he doesn’t get seduced by the Palace’s pleasures and doesn’t go home at night. It’s a seemingly innocuous, but important, action: Stay among the people. The power for reform will emanate from the people, not from the politicians who want the status quo where they are comfortable, and comfortably off.

If Aquino is honest in his statements of fundamental reform, not scrabbling ineffectually at the edges, he will enlist the people behind him. Their massed power, if properly harnessed, can be stronger than any politician’s.

Amid the euphoria of winning, about-to-be President Aquino might want to keep fixed in his mind that he won because the people are sick of trapo leadership, of corruption, of dishonesty, of the dynastic systems and leadership selfishness that have brought the Philippines to the bottom of the Asian heap.

If he betrays that faith the people have given him, his mother will be turning in her grave and his father will have given his life in vain.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, corruption, honest government
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