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Philippines' dream and nightmare

Publication Date : 28-07-2014

 

At the end of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s first State of the Nation Address, in 2010, he captured the hopes of a scandal-weary public with a simple declaration: “Puwede na muling mangarap” - We can dream again.

Today, as he delivers his fifth Sona, he will find a public worried about the possibility that yesterday’s dreams have turned into a nightmare.

Like the predecessor he has striven to be the opposite of, Mr. Aquino will fulfill his constitutional duty to report to the nation with impeachment complaints pending against him. Like Gloria Arroyo, he will meet a warm, even passionate reception inside the halls of Congress but a cooler one outside. And like her, he will present his legislative program conscious of his diminished political capital; his ratings are markedly lower from their previous highs.

Seems like deja vu all over again. The dominant mood of today’s audience is concern - that the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) has been mismanaged, at best, or is really the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) but on steroids, at worst. Is there no difference, then, between the corruption-plagued Arroyo administration and the presidency that succeeded it?

We do not know if President Aquino will acknowledge this question directly, but we should expect him to answer it in great detail. He will in particular defend the DAP, because he has to. Under severe criticism, he has no choice but to emphasize the difference between the PDAF and the DAP, and belabor something that has been lost in the growing controversy. There is no proof of corruption; not even the impeachment complaints endorsed by militant left party-list representatives allege personal gain on the part of the President or his Cabinet in any alleged abuse of government funds. (Hence, Sen. JV Ejercito’s attempt to attack the DAP as technical malversation.) We can expect the President to identify specific projects benefited by the DAP, and perhaps even ask beneficiaries of these projects to stand up and be recognised.

But adopting this stance means assuming a defensive posture, which is hardly conducive to meeting the political objective behind every Sona: The mustering of public and political support for the government’s policy agenda. There are major policy initiatives that the Aquino administration must see through in the second year of the 16th Congress. Chief of these is the Bangsamoro Basic Law, whose draft remains the subject of a vigorous debate within the administration even before it can be filed in Congress. The freedom of information bills are also part of the Aquino agenda; since they require greater transparency and accountability from public officials, they will face considerable resistance from some legislators. Not least, three incumbent senators are now in detention, on plunder charges related to the so-called pork barrel scam. Seeing their trial through will require public and political support.

After four full years into its term, the best way for the Aquino administration to gather substantial support for these and other initiatives in its policy agenda is to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and pledge to do better. This approach means accepting the argument of incompetence that has been leveled at it. In particular, the failures at the Department of Energy and the inexplicable sluggishness at the Department of Transportation and Communications must be recognized - and rectified.

We cannot reasonably expect President Aquino, or indeed any president, to use the political rite of the State of the Nation Address to announce the firing of Cabinet secretaries; Mr. Aquino, in addition, is known to support his political allies to the sometimes bitter end. But what a jolt to the public mood, what an inspired move, if in today’s Sona he thanked Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla and Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya for their
services, and then replaced them.

If the administration had not filed a motion for reconsideration in the Supreme Court, we could add Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to the list. The President can thank him for his service, laud his innovations in the budget system, and then publicly accept his offer of resignation.

Farfetched? To end the nightmare lying in wait for all of us, one can - one should - dream again.

 

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