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Philippines on the boil

Philip Bowring

HONG KONG The Philippines is again facing political turmoil. A year after she was elected in her own right, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is beset by some of the same problems that led to the ouster of her predecessor, Joseph Estrada.
She will survive now because most of the coalition of interests - the church, big business, the army and the Manila middle class - that toppled Estrada still back her, albeit without enthusiasm. The allegations of corruption that began the turmoil are against her family, not herself. Separately, there are accusations of ballot rigging in the presidential election - a complaint often heard after Philippine polls. Local electoral fraud is not uncommon but unlikely to have been on a scale to fix the presidency.
But her troubles are another blow to Filipinos' hopes for stable and effective government. There are again rumors of coup plots by young officers. Any such attempt is unlikely to succeed, but talk alone is destabilizing. The turmoil is particularly disheartening following Arroyo's success in pushing through Congress tax increases urgently needed to stabilize government debt.
It is usual to ascribe the Philippines' problems to infighting within a ruling elite that competes for the spoils of office but does little to advance the commonweal. Corruption and avoidance of taxation are the norm, but exposés of corruption are an integral part of the democratic process. As the Philippine writer Joel Rocamura once put it, "nothing is done to end systemic corruption because the 'outs' do not wish to poison the wells for the day they become 'ins."' Estrada was removed as much for his personal behavior and incompetence as for corruption. No one was even jailed for corruption after Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown.
The "selfish elite" explanation is not the whole story. Corruption is also an outcome of the democratic process itself. Arroyo's administration is embroiled in allegations of kickbacks from organizers of jueteng, a numbers game that is illegal but ubiquitous. Receipt of such kickbacks was the ostensible cause of Estrada's downfall. The awkward truth, however, is that politics is widely financed by jueteng. Electioneering is costly and elections are many.
Politicians need money, and if elected, they expect a return on their investment. Likewise they expect that support for whoever is in power in Manila will be rewarded with largesse for their district, which will help their re-election.
In a country with weak bureaucratic institutions, the political process dominates government with an interplay of contracts and favors between provincial and central power holders. The increased political role of national movie stars and other celebrities has done little to undermine the patronage system while tending to lower the competence of national politicians.
The absence of ideologically based political parties - apart from some minor ones on the left - means that most politics are about individuals and their ability to raise money to fight effective campaigns.
Can anything be done about this? Changing the Constitution will not change society, but it could help. One huge improvement could be to move to a single-chamber legislature or at least cut down the role of the all-powerful Senate. This is a body of 24 personalities nationally elected for six years. They have scant party allegiance and are often seen as more interested in self-promotion and campaign funding than in good governance.
Another step forward would be to follow the Thai example of forcing the development of a stable party system by not allowing legislators to change parties and by making the Legislature up from a mix of those elected from congressional districts and those from party lists.
There may also be scope for change at the local level, where democracy has enabled vested interests to manipulate the system and control jueteng and other racketeering. Post-Marcos decentralization may have gone too far in a country fragmented by geography and where big land-owning families and their business associates have long dominated local politics.
As it is, democracy in the Philippines is unstable and inefficient. Elections and a free media are big compensations, but even they may not survive unless government can deliver more.
Arroyo's troubles are mostly the result of the system. She will survive this onslaught, but her authority will be weakened. The factors underlying the turmoil are a reminder of why the Philippines continues to lag behind most of Southeast Asia in economic and social development.
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