Philippines 2015: Presidential Speculation, Scandals, and Prospects for Peace
January 7, 2015
A year ago, I predicted that one of the main stories of 2014 in the Philippines would be recovery efforts from Typhoon Haiyan, and indeed it took until October (almost the one-year anniversary) for final approval of the massive rehabilitation phase. As Panfilo Lacson began to transition out of the special recovery office, two more storms hit the Philippines. Typhoon Hagupit (locally known as Ruby) was a super typhoon when over the Pacific, but quickly weakened upon landfall. Frantic preparations kept casualties to a minimum, though property damage was extensive on the Pacific coast. However, a weaker Tropical Storm Jangmi (Seniang) at the very end of the year caused more casualties – 65 in total – with a reminder that disasters regularly strike the country.
On a brighter note, progress continued through 2014 on a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. A Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed in Malacanang (the presidential palace) in March, and in September a draft Bangsamoro Basic Law was submitted to Congress for consideration and ratification. Certified by President Noynoy Aquino as “urgent,” the bill was the subject of numerous public hearings both in Manila and throughout the country (particularly in Mindanao). While action on the bill was not completed by the end of December, both the House of Representatives and Senate aim to pass the Basic Law in the first quarter of 2015.
In contrast, armed confrontation with the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front continued apace, with the arrest of its top leaders in the country – the Tiamzons. At the very end of 2014 there was speculation of renewed peace talks, but the speculation was met by skepticism about any real progress (compounded by continued guerrilla attacks through the holiday period).
Scandals continued in the Philippines, unsurprisingly. The reaction against scams involving pork barrel funds (which saw three senators charged and detained for corruption) continued into executive budget discretion. The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional President Aquino’s “Disbursement Acceleration Program” (DAP), where funds from slow-moving projects were realigned to those moving at a faster pace – the contention was that this violated the legislature’s power of the purse. The president defended the practice, but once struck down it was discontinued. Despite these restrictions on presidential discretion in budgetary execution, the 2015 budget passed Congress (including a supplementary budget covering the discontinued DAP items) as desired by the president, demonstrating once again the president-and-personality centric nature of the Philippine political system.
A new wave of scandal broke over Vice President Jejomar Binay’s actions as long-standing mayor of Makati. It is alleged that he enriched himself through a variety of schemes, and is now the owner of an elaborate, 350-hectare farm in Rosario. He denies all charges, and alleges that they stem from a conspiracy to derail his candidacy for president in 2016 (President Aquino is limited to only one term). Despite months of front-page coverage, and what is referred to as a long-running TV serial, Binay remains the leading candidate in surveys about 2016.
So much for 2014, but what about 2015? Yogi Berra famously said “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” but some things are pretty certain. Throughout, presidential speculation will continue as the ruling party searches for someone who can beat the vice president in 2016. In addition, there will be considerable bootless discussion of pairings of presidential and vice presidential candidates. Such discussion is of little value since voters cast ballots separately for the two offices (not for a party), and there is essentially no evidence of much connection between the two. In 1992, 1998, and 2010 the victorious president and vice president came from different tickets. It was only in 2004 that running mates won, when President Arroyo picked newscaster Noli de Castro as her vice presidential candidate.
By the middle of the year, there will be a plebiscite on the Basic Law passed by Congress to see what areas of Muslim Mindanao will be part of the new Bangsamoro, set up under the MILF peace agreement. Central Mindanao, the MILF heartland, is certain to vote “yes,” but other areas – particularly the Sulu Archipelago inhabited by Tausugs – are less certain. (In historical times, Maguindanao and Sulu were separate, and sometimes warring, sultanates.) With regard to the communist insurgency, it seems likely that some talks will be held (both Filipino “friends of the process” and the Norwegian facilitator are working hard to make something happen). However, substantive progress seems unlikely, much less a comprehensive agreement.
Despite the Philippines’ insularity, international issues will loom large. One issue moving up the international agenda concerns territorial disputes in the West Philippine/South China Sea. A survey of possible conflicts concluded: “One high-priority contingency – an armed confrontation in the South China Sea – was upgraded in likelihood from low to moderate this year.” The Philippines has taken its dispute with China to a United Nations Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, and while not recognizing the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China has published its stance on the issue (as has the United States, even though the U.S. is not a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and Vietnam). Ernie Bower of CSIS has predicted that the Tribunal’s ruling will not come out in 2015, but in early 2016.
Connected to ongoing disputes with China was the signing in 2014 of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the United States and the Philippines. This would allow the United States more access to Philippine bases and to step up military interchanges. This has been challenged in the Supreme Court by those who see dependence on the United States as a greater infringement on Philippine sovereignty than a dispute with China. The Supreme Court will rule in 2015 on this issue – past agreements have been ruled constitutional. Complicating matters from a public relations point of view is a horrific murder of a Filipino transexual woman, allegedly by a U.S. Marine. Given the one-year time-frame for criminal prosecutions laid out in U.S.-Philippine agreements, the verdict in this case will definitely come out in 2015.
2015 will also see the ushering in of the ASEAN Economic Community, which figures large in speculation about Philippine readiness. While many industries fear the increased foreign competition, economists argue that it is precisely restrictions on foreign capital that have hampered Philippine industries. Thus, in 2015 you will see renewed efforts by some in Congress to amend the 1987 Constitution in the face of cynicism of politicians’ motives and economic nationalism.
This year will be bookended by two events that guarantee to snarl traffic and cause disruptions in everyday lives. Later this month, Pope Francis will spend five days in the Philippines – both in Manila and visiting the Haiyan-devastated city of Tacloban. Holidays have been declared in Metro Manila given the crowds of millions that are expected. Involving fewer people, but just as many traffic jams, is the November hosting by the Philippines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting. The last time the Philippines hosted, in 1996, I often found it faster to walk along the EDSA highway rather than take a taxi.
Last year I declined to make a prediction about whether a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather would take place – this year I predict there will be such a fight in 2015. Both men have much to gain both in status and in income. However, I must decline to make a prediction of who will win!
Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He tweets @StevenRoodPH, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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