Aquino’s "Transformational Presidency": What Change?*

By Bobby Tuazon
July 27, 2012

In his first SONA of July 2010, Aquino III pledged a “transformational presidency” to free the nation from corruption and poverty and set the pace for reforms. Today what meaning does it convey when no institutional reforms have been made beyond the removal of the SC chief justice and the prosecution of former President Arroyo? The state of the nation today is no different from where we were 26 years ago.

Since 1986, the SONA of every President at the start of term talks of grim economic and political scenarios, crises, and bankruptcy – a finger pointed at their predecessors – with a pledge to change things through “institutional,” “structural,” and “radical” reform. Corazon C. Aquino promised “structural reforms with a centerpiece comprehensive agrarian reform to end land tenancy. Fidel V. Ramos talked of economic “pole vaulting” and a “social reform agenda.” “Radical restructuring” and a decisive end to corruption came from Joseph E. Estrada. Gloria M. Arroyo’s 9-year term pledged “long-term structural reforms,” 1 million jobs every year, food for every family, and a “strong republic.”

All past SONAs since 1986, however, expose a national situation with no meaningful change whatsoever – a country overtaken by its neighbors. Poverty level just fluctuated from 60% in 1987 to 51% at the end of Arroyo’s term. Unemployment stood almost the same: from 10 million without jobs to almost 12 million – if the underemployed are included - with a further increase in poor-quality jobs. From $23 billion the country’s foreign debt has ballooned to $63 billion. Rare signs of GDP growth find state economists without answer as to why such growth does not trickle down to the poor. Three years ago, the net worth of the Philippines’ 25 richest Filipinos ($21.4 billion) was equivalent to the total income of 11.1 million families or 56 million Filipinos.

The avowed commitment to lighten the gloom fell short of what all the Presidents were drumbeating as comprehensive reforms. Every program was defined by term limit thus is devoid of the needed strategy and continuity. Every short-term solution was essentially palliative and subscribed to development models, e.g., privatization, deregulation, and structural adjustment programs (SAPs) now being repudiated in many parts of the world for their disastrous results. In varying degrees, corruption, patronage, economic plunder, and attacks on human rights marked every presidency with governing institutions irreparably weakened and mistrust in government deep.

Unlike the previous regimes, Aquino III tried to raise hopes that he will be a “transformational” president with a straight roadmap (“daang matuwid”) for social change. The “social contract” that he promised to fulfill, however, was made nebulous by a lack of vision and a series of blunders from Day 1 until the end of 2011 when his trust ratings began to dip. This juncture saw the arrest of the former president for electoral sabotage and the impeachment of her ally, SC Chief Justice Renato Corona, for constitutional violations. Where this would lead to in terms of wide-ranging institutional reform in governance and justice begs an answer.

Aquino III’s performance after two years flops and his pledge to stamp out corruption stands merely as a prop to conjure the image of “transformational leadership.” The non-performing Aquino III in Congress is now replicated in Malacanang. After two years, not a single priority bill has been enacted into law. A new mining policy reverses decades of collective gains by the people: Local communities are now prohibited from stopping mining operations thus allowing transnational mining firms to exploit at will.

The claim of GDP growth in the first quarter of 2012 was driven by a surge in government consumption and is therefore unsustainable. The main drivers of economic growth, productivity, and jobs creation such as agriculture and investment performed poorly. Unemployment has worsened alarmingly from 10.9 million in 2010 to 11.7 million today or 11.7% of the labor force, the underemployed included. Of those employed only 57% have regular jobs indicating the fast deterioration of work quality.
The economy will continue to rely heavily on overseas workers’ remittances – the perennial rescuer of the economy. Compared with the daily outflow of 3,000 Filipinos seeking overseas jobs in 2010, the number has risen to 4,500 this year. Government is aggressively exporting labor: it aims to double the country’s share of world seafarers from 25% or 347,150 seafarers to 50% by 2016. Yet Aquino has cut the welfare and services budget for overseas Filipino workers by close to P800 million, leaving only about P262 million.
The social divide in the country has widened even more: the combined wealth of the 40 richest Filipinos more than doubled growing by $24.6 billion (108%) to total $47.7 billion this year which is equal to 21% of the GDP. The number of households who rated themselves poor increased from 9.1 million (2011) to 11.1 million (April 2012) or 55% of the population.

In contrast to the swift removal of the former SC chief justice, Aquino III exerts no political will in arresting top criminal fugitives and perpetrators of human rights violations. In two years, the number of politically-motivated extra-judicial killings has reached 81 with two foreign development volunteers among the victims.

Aquino III takes pride in tying the country’s sovereign rights with the U.S. – from defending its territorial claims, to AFP modernization, foreign policy, and domestic counter-insurgency. Clearly the direction he is taking is the same dependency and “brown American” mentality that his predecessors took giving the country nothing but a loss of dignity and respect in the world.

The litmus test of Aquino’s “transformational leadership” is in instituting sweeping reforms that will address the people’s decades-long for social, economic, and political woes – a state that ensures even just the basic minimum rights to life, employment and wages, housing, health, and other human development indices. The critical test is in giving up dynastic interests and not expanding it horizontally and vertically as in backing the senatorial candidacy of a nephew who - who knows – may yet take a shot at the presidency next time.

Transformational leadership requires the restructuring of systems and institutions, a strong ideological commitment, transcending clan interests and renouncing traditional patronage. It requires the will to fight, in bringing the presidency to the masses and linking up with their collective interests. It should inspire liberation rather than convey pessimism.

Without such social consciousness, being grounded on the real conditions, and the will to change, transformational leadership will remain elusive – not under the present state of the nation, anyway.

From the way he has shown his “leadership” so far – where backpedalling is the norm - the country has already seen the rest of Aquino’s presidency. Without even being understood by the people, “transformational presidency” has lost its appeal.

*Published as a Commentary in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 27, 2012.

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