Philippines 2014: The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?
January 8, 2014
January, named after the two-faced Roman god Janus, is a time that invites us to look back and look ahead. Here in the Philippines, excitable headlines make it hard to discern if 2013 was the worst of times, or the best of times – but either way, Filipinos seem to be looking forward to 2014 with optimism.
The National Competitiveness Council gave the Philippines a positive 2013 evaluation, citing rapid economic growth, credit upgrades from ratings agencies, and surges upwards in international competitiveness ratings. Even as the world was transfixed by the devastation caused by Super typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Yolanda), economic estimates show that while there has been severe localized suffering in the worst affected areas (also among the poorest areas of the country), overall economic growth of the nation will not be greatly affected.
Those who take a dimmer view of 2013 are not impressed. They lead with the fact that there is no evidence that economic growth has thus far reduced poverty or created sufficient jobs to absorb the growing population. Most of all, they point to the turbulent second half of 2013, which indeed seems to make the year a candidate for the label, annus horribilis. In July, an alleged scam was disclosed where hundreds of millions of pesos of congressional “pork barrel” (where members of Congress, after the budget is passed, designate projects and implementers) were diverted to fake beneficiaries and organizations. Hundreds of thousands protested in a march against corruption, but, in an interesting twist, one of the alleged legislators managed in a speech to equate such accusations with President Aquino’s discretionary use of savings from slow-moving projects to more fully fund fast-disbursing projects. In short, from an attack on congressional pork barrel (which has subsequently been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) the political crisis morphed into a general attack on discretionary budgeting by the executive (the Supreme Court is still deliberating on the case against the Disbursement Acceleration Program).
This political turmoil was followed in short order by the September 9 incursion to Zamboanga City by elements of the Moro National Liberation Front (that displaced over 100,000 people), the October 15 earthquake that shook the island of Bohol (causing widespread devastation, including the demolition of historic heritage churches), and the November 8 onslaught by Super typhoon Haiyan. Controversy attended particularly the first and third of these, with critics decrying the decision in Zamboanga not to negotiate with MNLF commander Habier Malik, so that fighting continued to the bitter end, and with doubts continuing to be raised about the government’s preparedness for and response to the super typhoon.
The media have turned much of this into a story of skepticism over Aquino’s performance. However, the Filipino citizenry has refused to evaluate President Aquino in this manner. While skeptics try to characterize his approval rating as “less than his record,” new figures from the Social Weather Stations prove otherwise: President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III has ratings that are unprecedented in the democratic era that followed the 1986 overthrow of the authoritarian President Ferdinand Marcos.
A second graph begins to give an idea of how this disjuncture can develop between elite opinion and that of the average citizen. Metro Manila – the economic center and where the top universities and media conglomerate headquarters are located – is the area where approval of President Aquino is lowest and has been declining during the second half of the year. However, as we have seen from the graphs, his support among the citizenry is still high, and that is a good basis on which to begin to influence Congress: the power of the president is the power to persuade.
While his approval rating is still strong in Manila, in the national capital not only are skeptics more likely to find those who agree with them, but the media also echoes this skepticism.
So, as noted, the average Filipino looks forward to 2014 with optimism. But would analysts have reason to agree with them? What can we reasonably expect? Continued economic growth is certainly helping, and the government is making the kind of investments in education, health care, and physical infrastructure that can produce inclusive growth eventually. But structural reform is a long-term process, so unemployment will remain high and poverty stubborn. The political effect of these caveats will depend on whether the average citizen still believes (as they do now) that with President Aquino there is hope things will continue to improve.
For 2014, the most prominent continuing story is likely to be recovery efforts about typhoon Haiyan. Needs are great, processes long-term, and repeatedly over the past weeks accusations of political favoritism, shoddy work, and corruption have surfaced. It is likely that President Aquino’s historic legacy will be defined by rehabilitation efforts (including in Zamboanga City and Bohol, as well as areas of Mindanao devastated earlier by typhoon Pablo). The president has appointed former senator Panfilo Lacson as a “czar” to coordinate the efforts, a man with a no-nonsense reputation but about whom doubts have been raised stemming from his human rights record while a police general. In 2004, Lacson ran for president, stirring speculation that a good performance in disaster recovery may spur another run in the next scheduled elections in 2016 (when President Aquino must step down).
In the middle of 2014, the issue of the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will likely become more prominent, as Congress begins work on the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro as drafted by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC). Progress is being made in negotiations in Kuala Lumpur, and the BTC (charged with translating the peace agreements into a draft Basic Law) will likely have a comprehensive agreement to work with early in the year. The optimistic schedule is to transmit the bill to Congress in May or June so that progress can continue toward full implementation by the time President Aquino steps down in 2016.
However, previous laws for Muslim Mindanao (in 1988 and in 2001) were changed by Congress through amendments that were not acceptable to those negotiating for peace. Avoiding that scenario this time will depend on the political capital of President Aquino, who has vowed to implement agreements reached by his administration (the flip side of his instruction to the peace panels not to negotiate anything that cannot be fully implemented).
There are those who wonder whether the reaction to the pork barrel scandal, with limits on budgetary discretion being imposed and further limits advocated, reduces the ability of the president to be politically influential. Certainly, budgetary games were one of the tools of presidential power, but far from the only one. As I’ve written before, the Philippine political system involves a very powerful presidency, and there will be many maneuvers president Aquino and his administration can undertake.
As the 2016 end of his term begins to loom in 2014 (President Aquino has spoken of the “last two minutes” of play), he still will be the most influential actor on the scene. Of course, that means that he can be held responsible for how 2014 turns out.
Unlike in past blog posts, I make no prediction about whether a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather will even take place, much less will I assay a guess as to the winner.
Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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