Philippine President Aquino Loses the Plot

After a strong first term that endeared his country to international investors, the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III is losing both its momentum and its reputation for responsible government. Concern is rising that his administration may end up in yet another false dawn for better governance in the Philippines.

Aquino, the 62-year-old scion of an aristocratic family that has held sway in the Philippines for generations, has little aptitude for the common touch. It is starting to show. Critics say the president, perhaps carried away by his earlier popularity and Teflon image, is in danger of destroying two of the key elements in the revival of the image of the government in the Philippines at home and abroad.

First was the president’s decision to challenge a unanimous Supreme Court vote outlawing his use of the Disbursement Acceleration Program to put unused budget allocations to new uses. Although the benefits of dispersing those funds were clear enough, trust in government and adherence to rules is supposed to be a feature of Aquino’s administration.

Aquino’s threat to sack the court won little sympathy because of the disbursement fund’s unhealthy resemblance, for better or worse, to the year-old Pork Barrel scandal still unfolding in the legislature, in which up to 100 congressmen are alleged to have diverted money for district development into their own pockets. The scandal is believed to have cost the Philippine treasury at least US$225 million and perhaps a great deal more.

But Aquino apparently has engineered a behind-the-scenes attempt in the House of Representatives to impeach five justices including Marina Lourdes Sereno, the woman he appointed as the chief justice. Whether it goes anywhere, or remains a clumsy threat, he is now regarded as not only rejecting the court’s mandate but as having set the legislature against it.

While the clumsy US-derived division of executive, legislative and judicial power has long added to the difficulties resulting from fractured geography, setting up confrontations between the respective powers is no way to achieve continuing reform by raising the level of popular trust in government and its officials.

Some of the good work done earlier by Aquino in appearing to stand for clean and responsive government has already been undone, and has also weakened a president who now has only 20 months left in office – and with no obvious reform-minded successor.

Now he has again put his credibility on the line by allowing his much-praised peace accord with the MILF to be undermined by his own administration, apparently to appease various congressmen who have no concept of national interest and are pretending to be defending the constitution and national integrity.

Independent sources who have seen the draft law say that in the hands of administration lawyers, large sections of the draft agreement with the MILF have been either omitted or their wording significantly changed. This might not be surprising given that the Philippines is overrun with lawyers in politics as well as the administration.

But there are deepening concerns that Aquino as President is so feeble that he caves into petty and legalistic interests when the issue is peace in a large part of the nation after decades of warfare. The draft of the Bangsamoro law was supposed to have been submitted to Congress in May but Malacanang itself has been busy querying various provisions in the original agreement submitted by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission.

In his July 28 State of the Nation Address Noynoy asked for “understanding” of the delay saying it was important to “scrutinize each provision we lay down.” But such scrutiny now looks to be becoming in effect a way of emasculating the whole deal whther for political reasons or simply to satisfy the battalions of argumentative lawyers who will always find some reason to argue that the law is unconstitutional.

It would not be the first time that executive efforts to resolve the problems in Mindanao/Sulu have been undermined by the petty politicians of Manila trying to gain favors or publicity by condemning any deal as unconstitutional.

Aquino is paying for his sins with a falling personal approval ratings as measured by Social Weather Stations, the country’s most reliable poll, which found 55 percent satisfied and 30 percent dissatisfied with his performance in office, down 11 points since the first quarter of the year, and with dissatisfaction rising by nine points. That was before the full impact of his attack on the high court sunk in.

By contrast, Vice President Jejomar Binay, the current odds-on candidate to succeed him, was running an approval rating of 78 percent with 11 percent dissatisfied. Binay is closely identified with the political machinery of former President Joseph Estrada, who was driven from office for corruption in 2001. Estrada has since recovered to be elected mayor of Manila in 2013.

The big concern on the part of reformers is that by making a mess of his presidency at this point, he will have no coattails on which another reform candidate could ride in the 2016 election, and that the undeniable progress his administration has made in cleaning up the government tendering process, making political appointments based on merit – ironically including Justice Sereno – and unraveling some of the excesses of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, will now in turn be undone by a less than savory successor.