Search Friday June 4, 2004

Time for Arroyo to get tough
Politics in the Philippines
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Wednesday, June 2, 2004

MANILA: It is easy to be cynical about the ability of the Philippines' political and social structure to produce a government capable of reversing the long-running decline of the country's standing in Asia. Over the past 40 years, periodic bouts of progress have proved false dawns.

It takes an effort of will to believe that the election of President Gloria Arroyo can provide a fresh start for the country and lead to a sustained progress in addressing fundamental problems.

She promised in 2002 that she would not run for president this year and, unbound by electoral consequences, that she would devote herself to strong administration. That promise was broken, but she can yet redeem it. The prescription is obvious enough. The means of delivery is the issue.

Now the president has a popular mandate, as distinct from 2001, when she became president after a constitutionally dubious "people power" coup against President Joseph Estrada. It may be another month before the creaky electoral machinery finally declares her the official winner. It will probably be longer before sore losers stop crying "fraud" and accept that this election has been as fair as any in a country where local ballot manipulations are not uncommon. At the latest count Arroyo had 40 percent of the popular vote, compared with 37 percent for her nearest rival, the actor Fernando Po, and a combined 23 percent for the three trailing candidates - a healthy enough margin.

As important as Arroyo's margin of victory is the success of most of the pro-administration candidates for the Senate. If her coalition Senate can hold together, she should now have the capacity to push through government-backed legislation. The notoriously fractious Senate might become a more constructive body than it has been in recent years with a young, eloquent Liberal party senator as its majority leader.

There are indeed grounds for hope that political parties - long of little account in a nation where politics has been largely about personalities - are gaining ground. This election has shown voters to be more wary of television stars and other celebrity candidates, and some political dynasties that have long dominated local politics have also been overthrown.

A further boost to issue-based rather than the personality-based politics - which the elite favors as entertainment for the masses and a prop to the status quo - is on its way. On the agenda of the new Arroyo administration will be laws implementing constitutional provisions against legislators switching party allegiance, and to provide government funds for established parties. Philippine problems are more about the implementation than enactment of laws. Nonetheless, any improvement in the quality of the legislature should rub off on the standard of governance.

That has to start with making people, in particular the elite and the corporate world, pay their taxes. The Philippines has one of the lowest ratio of tax revenue to gross domestic product in the world - 14 percent. That explains why it has a huge budget deficit at the same time as there is no money for roads, education, irrigation and other public infrastructure, and vast sums of World Bank and other aid lie idle. Meanwhile new SUVs create gridlock in Manila.

Everyone knows what needs to be done. Arroyo has taken a few steps to try to clean up tax administration. Is she strong enough to take on the elite, and the notoriously corrupt bureaucracy that eats out of its hand? Strong enough to cut the links between government and corporate favors? Just possibly she might find some of her father's nationalist and antifeudal zeal.

The Catholic Church could help her battle corruption and elitism, but unfortunately it remains the obstacle to solving what is the resource-poor nation's biggest single problem - its birth rate. It is plain enough that much of East Asia's success in raising living standards has been to achieved by drastically reducing birth rates. The Philippines has the highest rate east of Pakistan. Arroyo has shied away from this issue before, but not needing to be re-elected she may feel strong enough to take on the church. A larger than expected vote for Panfilo Lacson, the only candidate with a family-planning policy, suggests that the populace may want a lead from the president, not the Vatican.

Attitudes in the Philippines about many things are changing, albeit slowly. Leftist, issue-oriented parties able to enter Congress through a list system are growing. Good governance, scarce as it is, is an issue. Overseas Filipinos can now vote - and could well be decisive in close elections. Above all, migrant workers are returning not just with cash but with knowledge of how things are done in a wider world where rich people pay taxes, corruption is less pervasive and bishops do not make policies on personal matters.

Yes, it takes an effort of will. But there is a chance that Arroyo's six years in elected office will see Philippine democracy begin to deliver the changes that society, and the economy, so badly need.