No Free Lunch

Six years: too long or too short?

ROME WAS not built in a day, as the old adage goes. Neither could it be done in six years. Soon, the six-year presidency of Benigno S. Aquino III will be over. The Philippine Constitution provides exactly that much time and no more, declaring: “The president… shall be elected by direct vote of the people for a term of six years… [and] shall not be eligible for any reelection.” It adds: “No person who has succeeded as president and has served as such for more than four years shall be qualified for election to the same office at any time.” On this basis, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was able to hold the office for nine years, three serving the uncompleted term of Joseph Estrada, and six in a regular term won in a controversial, fraud-marred election.

Other than in such unusual circumstances, the Constitution is clear: A Philippine president is given six years to do his/her work. We’ve all heard it said that six years is too short for a good president and too long for a bad one. A good presidency merits continuity through succession by a leader who would sustain the good work, but a bad presidency is best followed by a successor who would lead differently and correct perceived failures. The outcome of the last election suggests that more Filipinos saw need for the latter, as the two presidential candidates widely seen to ensure continuity jointly mustered only less than half (45 percent) of the vote.


Still, few would deny that much good has been achieved under the Aquino presidency. Six years of “Aquinomics” has earned the country the appellation of a “breakout nation,” a term coined by financial analyst Ruchir Sharma in his 2012 best-selling book “Breakout Nations.” The term alludes to the clear break between current and past performance, seen in the key aggregate economic indicators of price stability, employment and incomes. Over the last six years, the inflation rate averaged 3.3 percent and is now down to 1.1 percent, whereas it averaged 5.8 percent in the preceding six-year period. From unemployment rates of 7-8 percent in the previous period, it averaged 6.4 percent in the last six years and is now 5.8 percent, breaking below 6 percent for the first time in decades. Annual growth in gross domestic product, which also measures domestic incomes, averaged 6.2 percent in the last six years, against only 4.9 percent in the previous period.

Over the same time frame, the Philippines’ rank in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index jumped 38 notches from 85th to 47th, moving us to within the top one-third of 144 countries rated. The country’s corruption perception index dropped from 134th (out of 168 countries rated) in 2010 to 95th in 2015, climbing a total of 39 slots—the largest jump in Asean and the fourth largest in the world. Our experience has shown that much can indeed be done within six years. So much roads can be built, paved and repaved; schools can be built; and new public facilities can be completed. For example, the 13-station, 16.9-kilometer Edsa MRT 3  line took only four years to build, from October 1996 to the opening of all its stations in July 2000.

But some things come slow, for reasons that we sometimes bring upon ourselves. Notwithstanding the gains, bringing down poverty convincingly remains elusive. LRT 2 construction started in March 1996, but all stations finally opened only in October 2004, with so much time needed just to settle contractual issues. Right of way and land acquisition issues also slow many projects down, such as the Luzon Grid Transmission Project, which spanned from 1997 to 2005 from procurement to completion. Important legislation can languish in Congress for decades, like the Philippine Competition Act first introduced in 1987, but only enacted in 2015, or the Reproductive Health Law first introduced in 1999, but which became law only in 2012. The National Land Use Act, also trapped in Congress for decades, has yet to see the light of day.

Six years is a long time, but may not be enough time to achieve enough momentum toward sustainable growth. That the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had a 15-year timeline was not sandbagging for laggard countries, but recognition that lasting development takes time. In the Philippine case, natural and man-made disasters slow our development progress. In the Philippines’ Fifth Progress Report on MDGs released in 2014, then Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan explained that the devastation caused by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” was “seen to negate the progress for the MDGs, particularly in poverty reduction.” Conflict-plagued Mindanao is also behind in many of the MDGs.

Such slow developments are not unique to the Philippines. The economic revolution of Singapore that happened under its founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew spanned decades, from its establishment as a sovereign nation in 1965 to its becoming a First World nation in the early 2000s. South Korea’s “Saemaul Undong” rural development movement introduced in 1970 took a decade for lasting positive change to become manifest. These two successful come-from-behind neighbors of ours tell us it can be done, but it will take more than six years. This ought to convince impatient leaders, and our people in general, that reversing certain directions because desired results are slow in coming could possibly make things worse. Perhaps it is because we changed direction too much and too often in the past that we had traditionally lagged behind in our region, where policy stability appears to be the norm.

Perhaps we would all do well to take caution that while Rome was not built in a day, it only took that long to burn it down.

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