January 17, 2013 00:00
By Bruce Gale
The Straits Times
The presidency of Benigno S Aquino III is shaping up to be the best the Philippines has had since that of Fidel Ramos.
This may not seem like a particularly startling achievement. After all, it is possible to argue that Aquino’s immediate predecessors, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo, were so flawed almost anyone would look good in comparison.
Such a response, however, is unfair. While many of Aquino’s achievements so far have built on the ground laid by others, his administration deserves credit for the determination with which they were pursued.
The Ramos presidency (1992-1998) was widely credited with revitalising the Philippine economy and renewing foreign investor confidence.
Estrada’s presidency, by contrast, was a disaster by almost any measure. Under his watch, the nation’s fiscal deficit doubled as his economic team failed to build on the gains made by his predecessor.
Although elected by a wide margin in 1998, Estrada was quickly embroiled in corruption allegations that culminated in controversial impeachment hearings in the Senate. He was forced from office in January 2001, after the military withdrew its support and demonstrators flooded the streets in a manner reminiscent of the events that ended the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and installed Cory Aquino, Aquino’s mother, as president.
Estrada was succeeded by his vice-president, Gloria Arroyo. At first, she had somewhat more success, particularly in economic matters. The highlight of her economic reform agenda was an expanded value added tax. Although controversial, its implementation in November 2005 was a major step forward in dealing with the country’s large budget deficit.
But after 2004, controversy surrounding the alleged rigging of the presidential election of that year, together with earlier allegations that Arroyo’s husband was involved in money laundering, seriously damaged her popularity. As a result, many other initiatives failed to gain traction.
Aquino has brought the country a welcome degree of political stability. Since he took office in June 2010, few demonstrators have questioned his political legitimacy or demanded his resignation. This has given the president the opportunity to focus on policy formulation and implementation in a way that was just not possible under his two predecessors.
Achievements so far include a framework peace deal with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front, major new taxes on beer and cigarettes designed to raise revenue and discourage smoking, and a controversial Reproductive Health Bill.
The latter calls for mandatory sex education and requires the government to pay for contraceptives and family planning services for the poor. Economists see the legislation as an essential step in reducing both poverty and unchecked population growth.
Since all of these measures had their genesis in previous administrations, Aquino cannot claim sole credit. But as the head of the administration that finally saw them passed into law, he certainly deserves some recognition.
The Reproductive Health Bill, for example, had been stalled in the Senate for 14 years.
Major problems that remain include a high jobless rate and the continued lack of the sort of foreign direct investment levels that could help stimulate future economic growth. Can Aquino deliver on these as well?
At the moment, the President is riding high, buoyed by strong economic growth rates and positive approval ratings produced in part by a long-running campaign against corruption.
But Aquino’s recent successes have also created powerful enemies who may now be tempted to unite behind anyone who opposes future initiatives.
Not everyone views the peace agreement positively. Provincial governors on Mindanao were opposed to an earlier experiment involving a similar agreement to establish an autonomous Muslim-run region on the southern island. Getting them to cooperate with this deal may be difficult.
The increased “sin taxes”, meanwhile, have alienated Fortune Tobacco, owned by billionaire Lucio Tan. Local conglomerate San Miguel, which controls 90 per cent of the nation’s beer market, is not happy either.
Then, there is the influential Catholic Church, which campaigned long and hard against the Reproductive Health Bill and is now gearing up for a similar battle against a proposal to legalise divorce.
Aquino’s victory in the 2010 presidential election had more to do with public affection for his late mother than his congressional track record, which was little more than mediocre.
Since he took office, some critics have accused him of being slow to respond when it comes to issues such as disaster relief. But the president has also won important victories, confronting vested interests on issues he has deemed important. History will judge him on how he leverages these initial successes to lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth.