Photograph by George Calvelo
What does the 2014 SONA reveal about the state of the Aquino presidency?
At every moment, I must be mindful of the concerns and perspectives of all. Think about it this way: it is as if you are watching two hundred TV channels at the same time. You need to understand not just what is unfolding before you—you also need to know what happened before, and where it could all lead. Confusion is not an option, and you must have a response for every question, suggestion, and criticism—and you must have all the answers even before the questions are asked. This is not an easy job, and I am only human, one who at times is also capable of feeling apprehension.
- President Benigno S. Aquino III, 5th State of the Nation Address, July 28, 2014
Coming after two scathing speeches that bewailed the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), President Noynoy (PNoy) Aquino’s State of the Nation Address(SONA) was sober. For the first time, PNoy publicly admitted, albeit limitedly, a frailty, to feeling apprehensive. The SONA speech was laced with statements that mirror the source of PNoy’s apprehension, but this definitely comes from “the noisiest and loudest of those who oppose… are not in favor of the transformation of our country.”
By transformation, PNoy repeatedly refers to the straight path that his administration promised to trek. Articulated in his first State of the Nation Address, PNoy characterized this path as one where “decisions are made to protect the welfare of our people; to look after the interest of the majority; to have a firm grip on principles; and to be faithful to the public servant’s sworn oath to serve the country honestly.” Unlike his earlier SONAs when PNoy underscored the crooked ways of his predecessor, the 2014 SONA had PNoy recounting the achievements and “reforms” of his administration; interspersed with narratives from “beneficiaries” of these “reforms”; the lauding of individuals within and beyond government, who will sustain the “reforms”; and, ending with an optimistic note that the mass of Filipinos, his “bosses,” will sustain the transformation.
Reactions to PNoy’s 2014 SONA vary. Even before he started, representatives from militant party-list groups, donning garb of a color that they hoped would show their support for PNoy’s impeachment, walked out of Congress saying they were tired of hearing lies from the President. As PNoy delivered his SONA, social media was abuzz with expressions of support or diatribes. The most surprising reactions, though, came from two jailed senators charged with plunder in relation to the pork barrel scandal, Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada.
Revilla remarked that the 2014 SONA was “most decent.” Estrada commended the president for “enumerating completed projects and accomplishments…that are all laudable and beneficial for the people.” Among the reactions, however, the most telling came from the prelate of the Catholic Diocese of Bataan, who responded negatively to his own question of whether the accomplishments were felt by ordinary people.
The prelate is correct. Though jobs, largely in the informal sector, have been created—TESDA programs rolled out, the classroom backlog addressed, and a record kilometrage of roads built in the last four years—improvements in the quality of life of ordinary Filipinos have not occurred. Survey data supports this. Self-assessments on the improvement of one’s personal quality of life for the past and prospective year have basically returned in July 2014 to the levels recorded in mid-2010. The World Bank’s latest economic update on the Philippines affirms the prelate’s observation. The report identifies a number of challenges that deter inclusive growth—from the need to expand formal sector employment to the addressing of the underinvestment in infrastructure, education, and health.
Accomplishment =/= Reforms
Though the World Bank report does not spell it out, one can deduce that PNoy’s accomplishments can easily be wiped out. They cannot be regarded as institutional reforms. What are required are statutory changes that will sustain higher social spending, improvements in tax collection efforts, and strengthened people’s participation. So far, PNoy is wanting in this regard as legislative measures that will sustain key initiatives are languishing in Congress.
As a case in point, one important innovation in public finance has been the introduction of programmatic and participatory grassroots budgeting. What started as a zero-based budget approach in the formulation of the 2011 budget has progressed towards a program-based and participatory budgeting process, involving almost all government departments with the participation of civil society organizations at the sub-national and national levels. For these processes to continue beyond the current administration, the president has to certify as urgent and secure the passage of the relevant bills already proposed in Congress.
Another measure that has to be enacted is critical in ascertaining the accountability of public officials and arming the public with the evidence to secure such. This is the Freedom of Information (FOI ) Act. A campaign promise in 2010, the Upper House version of the act has been passed in the 15th and the current Congress. Some circles allege that PNoy’s wavering posture relative to the FOI measure stems from his apprehension that the law may be used against his administration. Though this fear is not unfounded, PNoy’s reluctance to endorse the measure earlier in his term speaks much about his resolve to institutionalize transparency. On this measure, PNoy did not exhibit the pronounced “leadership” he showed to influence Congress on other measures: from two impeachment cases, the early passage of four budgets, the creation of a Government Corporation Commission, the postponement of the ARMM elections, the Sin Tax law, to the Reproductive Health law. It was only recently that the FOI bill was identified as one of 26 measures the palace certified as urgent. With all the concerns raised about the draft measure in the Lower House, it is uncertain whether the measure will be passed and even if it was, the final statute may be severely diluted.
In support of the thrust of programmatic spending, PNoy should also push for a measure that will incrementally change the linkage between politicians and citizens—the Party Development Act. Several versions of the bill have been re-filed in both houses of Congress. In the 15th Congress, political parties and civil society organizations actively campaigned for its passage but were unsuccessful in shepherding the measure through the legislative grind. Though it is not an instant panacea, supporting the functioning of full-fledged political parties is bound to reduce the tendencies of elected politicians to engage in particularistic spending, and claiming credit for delivered programs and projects to influence their constituents’ vote. Versions of this measure submitted to Congress call for state subsidies for political parties that garner a reasonable share of the national and subnational elective seats. Also, the accountability of members of a political party to their organization is secured by a clause that defines, prohibits, and penalizes turncoatism.
For any chief executive, the greatest apprehension is becoming a lame duck, a real possibility that comes at the tail end of one’s term and in the case of PNoy, is the unspoken apprehension. There are at least a couple of reasons for this apprehension.
First, PNoy has lost considerable public support. While he has enjoyed a record of significant majority approval and trust for his first four years, the public’s appreciation and trust of PNoy significantly declined in the June/July 2014 Ulat ng Bayan survey of Pulse Asia Research Inc. as well as the Second Quarter Survey 2014 of the Social Weather Stations (SWS). In the Pulse Asia Ulat ng Bayan, an explanation for the erosion of approval/trust for PNoy is the significantly reduced appreciation and significantly heightened disapproval of his administration’s performance in fighting graft and corruption. In the same survey, there was also a significant decline in the proportion of people who agree that the government can still successfully fight corruption. The challenge for PNoy, therefore, is to restore the levels of approval and trust as these are clear indicators of the reception and support from his “bosses,” political capital that he can use to stave off any and all attempts of the “noisiest and loudest of those who oppose” his administration.
Second, PNoy reels from yet another veto from the Supreme Court. The fourth from the institution—counting the earlier “vetoes” of two executive Orders and a TRO on the Watch List Order that prohibited former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from traveling abroad—the Supreme Court’s decision on DAP was taken by PNoy as a huge blow. It puts his administration on the defensive, vulnerable to legal account and to be held liable for the disbursement of contested savings and funds to projects that were not originally authorized or crossed institutional borders. In his televised address, PNoy repeated a statement he first uttered when the Supreme Court ruled on Executive Order number 2, the presidential order that invalidated midnight appointments of the previous administration. In both statements, PNoy admonished the court for overstepping the limits of its constitutional authority and warned that such decisions precipitate a clash with another separate and co-equal branch of government and may require the intervention of the third co-equal branch. PNoy was visibly piqued by the Supreme Court’s decision on the DAP. While he has submitted to the court’s power by filing a Motion for Reconsideration, clearly, PNoy definitely has to be more cautious of future acts that may be brought to the Court for interpretation.
PNoy seems to have quickly recovered his bearings, if the tone, content, and derivative actions from the 2014 SONA are considered. From the SONA, we hear a president recapping what has been accomplished and what is needed to sustain the “gains” in journeying the promised straight and righteous path.
But PNoy’s cohorts are sending the wrong signals as they engage in acts that arguably veer from the straight path. In the Lower House, actions taken by allies to query the Chief Justice on the use of a Judicial Development Fund are ill-timed and seen as vengeful. Couple this with the proposal to impeach the Chief Justice, select members of the house appear to have taken PNoy’s warning to the court, that a third co-equal branch may step into the squabble, all too seriously. An even more distressing proposal from PNoy’s “friends” is for him to run for a second term. Possible only through a constitutional amendment, this proposal is reminiscent of the attempts of a group at the end of Fidel Ramos’s term to push for a people’s initiative to lift the presidential term limits. With friends like these, PNoy does not need enemies.
Though the analogy is far removed from the television viewing experience of ordinary Filipinos who have to content themselves with just a little over a handful of free channels, PNoy indeed has to be as watchful as someone who flips through 200 cable television channels. Rather than being on guard for yet another veto from the high court or warranted and unfounded attacks from the miniscule opposition, PNoy must be more attentive to the disruptive and damaging acts and statements of his allies and cohorts. While his administration can be credited for a number of accomplishments, the unreflective statements and acts of his “friends” will nullify the gains and render his vow of a straight path a mere illusion.