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Are the Philippines worth fighting for?

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Published : 2014-08-14 21:11
Updated : 2014-08-14 21:11

Nothing tells the story of where the Philippines was before Benigno Aquino and now better than Transparency International’s rankings. When he rose to the presidency in 2010 pledging to attack graft, his country was rated 134th, trailing Nigeria. Now, it’s 94th and boasts the investment-grade credit ratings to prove it.

But what if Aquino’s good-governance revolution is over? What if the bad old days of predecessors Gloria Arroyo and Joseph Estrada return once Aquino’s term ends in 2016?

These risks are greater than you might think as judicial setbacks, scandals and public discontent suddenly raises doubts about improvements that 12 months ago looked unstoppable. As Aquino delivered his penultimate state-of-the-nation address yesterday, the message “I’m no lame duck” seemed written between the lines in bold text. Trouble is, many in Manila political circles aren’t convinced.

Aquino still has time to rise above the rancor and institutionalize the reforms that turned his economy from a punchline into an investment darling. That means expanding efforts to curb the corruption than siphons off so many of the spoils of today’s 5.7 percent growth rate. He must go further to strengthen the national balance sheet; increase competitiveness; improve transparency; invest in education; upgrade infrastructure for industries from energy to tourism; broaden population-control efforts; and ease limits on foreign ownership to woo more investment.

But it will require political will as Aquino’s approval wanes. One major blow to his agenda came this month from the Philippines high court. It ruled that a $3.33 billion stimulus program meant to give growth an immediate jolt encroaches on the powers of the Congress. Not only is the window for economic restructuring closing ― so is access to funding.

All this has come at a huge political cost. Aquino’s detractors call his Disbursement Acceleration Program “the president’s pork barrel,” and news headlines containing such references have played a big role in his falling support rate. In the second quarter, Aquino’s approval rating hit a low of 55 percent compared with 66 percent in the January-March period.

Clearly, 2016 is upon us already and the political noise and mudslinging will only get worse. Aquino must work fast to avoid falling into the lame-duck pattern that undid too many of his predecessors. The most immediate tasks: expand social-welfare programs that reduce poverty, improve disaster preparedness, deepen anti-corruption efforts and increase tax collections.

Repairing an economy suffering from decades of neglect isn’t a six-year job. Although Aquino and his finance chief, Cesar Purisima, set the stage for a cleaner government, the Philippines’s 7 percent jobless rate is the highest among major Asian economies. Aquino and Purisima did much in four years to revitalize growth but they could have done more. Now is the time to accelerate efforts to create new jobs, as opposed to shipping millions of workers overseas.

“The problems we inherited, we have solved,” Aquino declared yesterday. “The ones that are here, we are solving. The ones that are to come, we are preparing for.”

Yet the risk, as is often the case in the Philippines, is who comes next. In 1998, when Fidel Ramos left the presidency, few thought his successors could derail his economic-reform drive. Estrada and Arroyo (both were arrested on corruption charges) did just that. So, the stability of a geopolitically important nation of 100 million-plus people hinges on continuity.

It’s anyone’s guess whether the current frontrunner, Vice President Jejomar Binay, is such a leader. Perhaps we’ll know after authorities get to the bottom of a multimillion-dollar plunder case against him dating back to alleged actions during his days as Makati City mayor in 2007. It’s also worth noting that the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (Aquino’s dad was assassinated in 1983 while trying to unseat Marcos) may run in 2016. So might Senator Bong Revilla, who was arrested last month on graft charges.

The Philippines has traveled a long way in just a few years. Its growth and confidence have enough momentum to withstand some bad decisions, perhaps even some of the corruption so endemic to public affairs. But amid such political risks and economic imponderables, it’s incumbent upon Aquino to use every day he has left in Malacaan Palace to ensure his reforms can’t be easily undone.

When I last met Aquino in February, in that very palace, he made a point of showing me the official presidential portrait of his mother, the late Corazon Aquino. “She taught me to remember that the Filipino is worth fighting for,” he said. I like that he repeated that line in yesterday’s address. Because that’s exactly what he needs to do each day for another two years.

By William Pesek 

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo and writes on economics, markets and politics throughout the Asia-Pacific region. He can be reached at wpesek@bloomberg.net. ― Ed.

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