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P-Noy: 100 Days, Honeymoon Continues, Power Flows?

October 13, 2010

As Philippine President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III passed the 100-day mark after his June 30 inauguration, there was a flood of assessments – including his own. Rather than add to the verbiage (googling “President Aquino 100 Days” yields 1,190 hits), it is interesting to point out that his “Speech on the First Hundred Days of the Administration” was delivered in Tagalog, as are so many of his speeches in the Philippines. This is not, as it was during President Estrada’s time, due to any doubts about his English-language ability, as a quick look at the September 23 session with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York would affirm. Rather, a continual use of Tagalog (even the Department of Foreign Affairs’ website carries only a Tagalog, not an English, version of the speech) is a way of strengthening his ties with the Filipino citizenry.

That he has maintained this connection with the average person, in the face of relentless partisan criticism and extensive discussion in the Manila media of perceived missteps, can be seen in survey results. In early September, I wrote:

“Public opinion polls over the next few weeks will show if that popularity has been dented by the hostage incident. The prediction here is that it hasn’t – the honeymoon with the Filipino people is not yet over.”

After 100 days in office, 71 percent were satisfied with his performance. Interestingly, there were some who interpreted this result as a “slump” so that the President of Social Weather Stations, Mahar Mangahas, had to devote some of his regular column to explain how this was a normal honeymoon rating for Philippine presidents.

But what is the practical import of continued citizen support, in the face of all the challenges a president faces?  Behind the headlines and the day-to-day back-and-forth of Philippine politics, does it matter that the president remains popular with the people?

As might be imagined in a presidential system, the executive branch is central to understanding Philippine government. In fact, a recent study of “Institutional Constraints on Philippine Growth” by economist Emmanuel S. de Dios focuses on the central role of the executive: “More powerful than his U.S. counterpart, a Philippine president exercises unprecedented fiscal discretion and powers of appointment.” The president of the Philippines appoints at least as many people to positions as does the president of the United States, which means that, given the much smaller size of  the Philippine government (800,000 excluding teachers, versus 2 million in the U.S., excluding the postal service) the president has more direct control.

But Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power, the classic study of the American presidency first published 50 years ago and still in print, points out that this is an insufficient way to think of what the president can do. A constitutional form of government commonly described as “separation of powers” (Legislative, Executive, Judiciary) is, as Neustadt put it, really “separated institutions sharing powers.”  Thus, the president is surrounded by other political or bureaucratic actors, with independent sources of power and legitimacy, whose cooperation is needed in order to accomplish anything.

Neustadt illustrated the problem with a quote from President Harry S. Truman, discussing his successor, General Dwight David Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here,” Truman would remark (tapping his desk for emphasis), “and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen.”

In the contemporary Philippine context, the equivalent illustration is when President Aquino’s orders in the August 23 bus hostage tragedy to use the more capable Special Action Force were not followed. The police SWAT team was shown on live television in a drawn-out, ineffectual assault – which is when the president learned his orders were not followed.

In short, “presidential power is the power to persuade,” not command. “The power to persuade is the power to bargain,” horse-trading, so that the other actors with whom he shares power decide that “what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their own interest, not his.”

In this persuasive task, the degree of popular support the president has is a key resource. Politicians especially must gauge voters’ reactions as they decide whether to support the president’s initiatives and policies. In the Philippines, the House of Representatives – the lower House of Congress – is historically inclined to follow the president, not least because of the fiscal discretion that de Dios mentions. The upper house, the Senate, is much less inclined automatically to fall in line. Since the 24 members are elected in a nationwide contest, they plausibly can think of themselves as independently representing the citizenry as a whole. Particularly for those contemplating running for president, it is easier to persuade them that their own view of their own interest coincides with what the incumbent wants if the current president is popular enough to be able to influence future elections.

Of course, popularity is not the entire story. Neustadt refers to a president’s “professional reputation” – how hard he works to get his way, whether he is knowledgeable about the levers of power, how persistent he is in following his instincts and policy preferences. A particular bugbear is divisions within an administration, so that the persuasive message gets muddled. This is one charge that has been levied against the current administration, with many analysts speculating on the factions within the president’s official family. A particularly public instance of division was between Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo and DILG Undersecretary Rico Puno. The president called them to a meeting to admonish them to patch up their differences.

If  President Aquino can maintain a pattern of imposing discipline among his various advisers, this will help him safeguard his professional reputation and burnish his power. Similarly, if he can maintain his popularity with the citizenry, his persuasive power will increase. It is on this consistency, not really his first 100 days, that the judgment of history will rest.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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