Notes from the Field

Have Philippine Presidents Overcome the Governance Impact of the ‘Hollywood Years?’

February 15, 2012

The Philippines has many cultural similarities to the rest of Southeast Asia. Some similarities, take cockfighting for example, puzzle some Filipinos and give great pride to other Filipinos (particularly males). Cockfighting is pre-colonial (as the chronicler of Magellan’s voyage when it arrived in the Philippines, Antonio Pigafetta observed) and is shared with Southeast Asia as is obvious from the classic anthropological essay by Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight.”

Interestingly, though, Samuel Huntington in his “Clash of Civilizations” places the Philippines in the category of Western civilization. Perhaps this is unsurprising – the old stereotype is that the Philippines was “350 years in a convent, and then 50 years in Hollywood.”  The religious impact of the “convent years” is a topic for another post, and the governance impact of the Spanish friarchy (a decentralized state with a weak center) was treated in last week’s post. In this week’s blog, I’m exploring the governance impact of the “Hollywood years” and efforts by Philippine presidents to overcome this impact.

People pass an old Coke sign in the Philippines

American influence over the Philippines was far-reaching, with significant impact on the nation's culture and system of governance. Photo by Karl Grobl.

Almost immediately after America took colonial rule over the Philippines, it instituted elections:  first municipal, then provincial, and then in 1907, it established elections for the Philippine Assembly. Filipino elites at the local level thrived under this deliberately decentralized regime that allowed the buildup of networks to the national level. Of course, since it was a colonial regime, the executive power was in the hands of Americans, but that was not long-lasting. In 1912, Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison began a rapid process of “Filipinization” and by 1919, Americans held only 5 percent of senior positions.

The point here is that there were powerful Filipino politicians before there were Filipino civil servants, so that, in Alfred McCoy’s words, the colonial bureaucracy was “effectively penetrated and manipulated” by the Filipino elites. This is the opposite of the general colonial pattern where the colonizer would allow indigenous bureaucrats before indigenous politics (since the former helped the colonizer carry out policy while the latter would challenge the colonizer). Renowned political scientist (and SAIS fellow) Francis Fukuyama points out that the same pattern held for the United States, with Jacksonian democracy being introduced in the 1830s whereas meritocratic civil service waited until the 1880s. He (perhaps controversially) thinks the quality of governance in the United States tends to be low – it certainly is not controversial that in the Philippines it is not. Bureaucrats in the Philippines lack the autonomy and prestige of bureaucrats elsewhere – which is obvious to anyone who has witnessed interactions between politicians and bureaucrats in a number of other countries.

Presented with a decentralized political system and a weak bureaucracy, what is a president, head of the executive branch, to do?  Since the beginning of the Commonwealth period in 1935, pyramids of patron-client networks were built (with party labels but with such low levels of loyalty to make political parties otherwise meaningless). The weakness of this strategy is the fissiparous nature of such structures, as witnessed by the fact that no Philippine president ever won reelection before Ferdinand Marcos in 1968. He managed his situation by devising mechanisms to bypass some of the steps of the pyramid (such as Congress) by going directly to localities through, for example, the Presidential Assistant for Community Development. Even after Marcos launched martial law in 1972, which he labeled “Revolution from the Center,”  local factions flourished and were not controllable from the center. Thus, in the 1984 parliamentary elections, factionalism among Marcos supporters in Baguio city allowed an opposition politician to win the election.

Over the years national administrations tried to overcome this decentralized political situation by restricting local governments in their spending through central funding and other activities by imposing red tape from the national government. However, the experience of an authoritarian government from 1972 to 1986 spurred the passage of the 1991 local government code, which brought administrative practice (that is, more autonomy for elected local governments) back in line with political reality. Of course, with most of their budget automatically allocated by a transparent formula, local governments lost some incentive to cooperate with the national government.

Another mode of control from the center is for the president to appoint more people throughout the bureaucracy – to the point where the president of the Philippines has more appointments to make than the president of the United States – some 11,000 compared to 9,000. Unfortunately, this tactic has long had its limits. As John Adams said, “Every appointment creates one ingrate and 10 enemies.”

Leaving aside current political maneuverings (as most spectacularly represented by the impeachment trial of the sitting chief justice of the Supreme Court), the current administration of Noynoy Aquino is attempting administrative remedies to strengthen the ability of the national government in Manila to achieve its policy objectives. First, in a technocratic maneuver, there is zero-based budgeting, which is increasingly tied to an organizational performance indicator framework (OPIF). Secondly, in an attempt to tie local government plans into national government budgeting, Aquino (beginning with the 300 poorest municipalities) focused on developing local project proposals for the national government agencies. By the end of this budget cycle in December 2012 we will have an idea of how successful these methods have been.

This is the fourth posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

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