A friend just pointed me to Josh Weinstein’s interesting blog on development in the Philippines. The subtitle of his most recent post on the recent election is “the case for a strongman.”
His main point of comparison is China, where in the last 25 years an authoritarian government has managed to raise an incredible 600 million people from poverty. During the same period the Philippines has puttered along, one step forward and two steps backward, with a political class growing bloated on public funds and poverty levels rising to 40% of the population.
In the most recent World Bank Ease of Doing Business Survey, the Philippines lies in 144th place (out of 183), behind all other Southeast Asian countries apart from Cambodia and Laos, both, interestingly, run by “strongmen.” This pitiful ranking, below 20 African countries and Iran (yup, it is easier to set up shop in Ahmadinejad’s Tehran than Arroyo’s Manila), surely drives a stake through Gloria’s claims to have improved the economy during her 9 long years in power. Incidentally, for the category “starting a business” the Philippines does even worse, it is 162 out of 183, a position among the world’s “failed states” that will not surprise anyone who has tried to hack their way through the tangled mess of licences required to start the smallest business here.
While the outgoing president has bragged of her achievements, the bare minimum has been spent on education, health, or infrastructure, again in marked contrast to China.
The results of last week’s election, though not the worst possible by a long way, don’t offer hope for an immediate escape from this wearying cycle of political stasis and economic decline. The president-elect, while personally clean, has a very limited record of achievement; the 12 new or re-elected senators are, by and large, clowns; congressmen and women are already showing much more interest in the spoils of office than in passing legislation to develop the country; the new chief justice was appointed under dubious circumstances, apparently with the main objective of keeping the person who appointed him out of jail … given all this, is it any wonder there is a desire to sweep away all this malfunctioning political machinery with one sweep of a strongman’s arm?
Except of course that the Philippines has already felt the lash of the strongman’s arm. Josh Weinstein points out that:
… if you ask a lot of Filipinos who was the best of the last five presidents, many will still say Marcos. He had some positive-minded reforms, despite helping himself and his cronies to the treasury of the country. And, at the very least, he could get things done, which is more than can be said about the current political system.
I guess he is right that you can find people who look back wistfully to the days of a man who could “get things done.” There may even be something in the claim of Blas Ople, the Secretary of Labour under Marcos, that the Philippines’ infrastructure was largely built during the first Marcos administration. But overall, I don’t see how it could be argued that the thousands of dissidents killed or imprisoned (3,257 killed, 35,000 tortured, and 70,000 incarcerated, as estimated by Alfred McCoy), the suspension of democracy during over 10 years of martial law, or the nepotism and breath-taking corruption of the last 20 years of Marcos could possibly form a model for the future.
A much better example would be the Ramos administration from 1992 to 1998, a period of political stability and economic growth. Ramos helped to deregulate the nation's major industries and put in place a more business-friendly culture than has existed before or since. One of his greatest achievements was to forge a workable political compromise in Mindanao. Ramos wasn’t perfect or free from the taint of the corruption himself (as in the AMARI and Fort Bonifacio deals), but he left his successor with a decent platform on which to build. Unfortunately, his successor was Erap.
The Philippines has to get itself back to 1998 and start again. By the end of the second Aquino presidency in 2016, the Philippines will not be an economic powerhouse, but doesn’t have to be a basket case either. The country has many advantages, a hardworking and creative people, a democratic structure, a nascent but rapidly growing call center and back office sector, vast remittances, enormous untapped tourist potential, and so on. Although Noynoy’s own record is limited, his administration promises to be progressive in tone. Many of the “Hyatt 10” who deserted the leaky Arroyo galleon will be back. Dinky Soliman has already agreed to return to her old post at the Department of Social Welfare. I am hopeful that Bill Luz will return to the Department of Education, possibly as Secretary.
If I can rouse myself from my blogging lethargy, I’ll try to talk about some of these specific areas of potential in the next few weeks. Despite everything, I am full of hope that the Philippines is wobbling back on track after 12 wasted years. It will need plenty of strong men and women to support it over the next 6 years, but no strongmen please.