The New York Times

April 21, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Keeping Up With the Thais


MANILA — The Philippines is accustomed to being compared with Thailand. In recent decades, the comparison has been mostly unfavorable, with Thailand making more rapid economic and social progress and, despite periodic coups, widely regarded as more politically predictable.

But the turmoil in Thailand is spurring the thought: Maybe the Philippines is not so bad after all. The country now has a chance to show that its politics is not as chaotic as is often perceived, and that it has a democratic system based on law, which could to attract the investment and tourism that heretofore have driven Thailand’s success.

On the face of it, that looks a credible proposition. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been in office since a quasi-constitutional coup in 2001. Elected in her own right in 2004, she has survived impeachment threats and half-hearted coup attempts and is almost sure to complete her term in mid-2010.

But it may be that the Philippines needs less stability, and some real change.

There are concerns that Ms. Arroyo wants to stay in power by engineering constitutional change via her control of the lower house of the Philippine Parliament. She has long supported switching to a parliamentary, unicameral system and liberalizing term limits. However, these changes would need approval in a plebiscite, where victory is unlikely, given her unpopularity.

Thus it is probable that elections next year will be conducted under the current Constitution, with a slate of familiar faces as presidential candidates. Voting is likely to be mostly peaceful, and the political game will continue much as it has since independence, except for the 14 years of the Marcos autocracy.

By that measure, the nation is stable and gives much weight to law and the Constitution. With a history of low expectations, it can also weather the global economic storm better than most. Over the next few years, it may well continue to have fewer problems than Thailand.

But the long-term outlook is more clouded. In Thailand, years of rapid development are at the root of the current struggle for power. Economic change has led to new class and rural/urban and liberal/authoritarian divides. But in the slowly developing Philippines, a single political class with roots in provincial power bases and patronage remains in charge. Politics is personal and parties are shifting alliances with no visible ideology.

Ms. Arroyo is the daughter of a president. In 2010, most of the candidates for the presidency, the Senate and even the House will be familiar names from political dynasties with access to campaign funds. Democracy and media freedom flourish, but the patronage system remains unchanged, stifling economic development and social change.

Unsurprisingly, corruption is institutionalized in a way not found even in Indonesia, often cited as the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia — but where there are signs of real progress. Ms. Arroyo came to power on the back of protests over corruption under her predecessor, but her own administration has seen a succession of scandals. The best and the brightest, among whom Ms. Arroyo was once counted, soon get swallowed by a system in which survival politics is seldom good governance.

Ms. Arroyo’s administration has one major achievement to its credit — the stabilization of government finances. For all her unpopularity and evidence of high-level sleaze, few expect that any of her potential successors will be better, and many fear the next president may be worse.

Still, it is no wonder that a nation whose population is soon to pass 100 million is critically reliant on $16 billion remittances from its 10 million citizens working overseas. Or that a Communist insurgency still smolders — never a real threat, but always a reminder of how electoral politics is controlled by a small elite.