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
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.