Philippines President's Legislative Package Stalling

Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III appears to be struggling to push through his legislative program of 13 priority measures, including the long-stalled reproductive health bill, observers in Manila say, and it may be a reflection on his leadership rather than the content of the legislative package.

The leadership of the Philippine Senate Wednesday backed away from the 13 bills, although the cold shower for the legislative program could be more due to political jockeying than to actual opposition.

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto told local media that the bills might be a priority for the executive branch, “but it didn’t necessarily mean that they’re the priority measures of Congress, particularly the Senate.”

Sotto in particular is a foe of the family planning bill and, along with the Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senate President Pro Tempore Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, has introduced a counter-measure called the Protection of the Unborn Child Law.

One source told Asia Sentinel that the apparent impasse is more due to Aquino’s governing style than to any real opposition. She compared Aquino’s leadership to that of Fidel Ramos, the president from 1992 to 1998, arguably the country’s most effective leader in recent history.

“I think this is probably jockeying,” she said. “But it also shows a lack of effective leadership on (Aquino’s) part. President Ramos used the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac) to push his priority bills.”

The advisory council was established by Ramos during his presidency as a consultative body for advice on programs and policies considered essential to the goals of the economy.

The reproductive health measure, which would provide birth control information to families, is by far the most controversial of the bills. which has met the determined opposition of the Catholic Church, has been stalled in the Legislature for more than a decade. The Philippines; burgeoning population is one of the fastest-growing in an otherwise stable Asia. It is adding roughly 2 million babies each year, with a population expected to hit 100 million by 2014.

Against the church’s opposition, Filipino women have been clamoring for access to birth control advice devices. According to a poll conducted in June and made public on Aug. 11 by the Social Weather Stations polling group, 82 percent of those polled said "the choice of a family planning method is a personal choice of couples and no one should interfere with it." Another 73 percent agreed that "if a couple wants to plan its family, it should be able to get information from government on all legal methods" and 68 percent said "the government should fund all means of family planning, be it natural or artificial means.”

The church, however, has threatened to defeat any politicians who vote for a birth control bill and has made good on its threats repeatedly in the past. It is questionable if that kind of clout is fading, particularly in the wake of a major scandal in the church that surfaced earlier this year when it was discovered that former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had been handing money in envelopes to church leaders in an apparent bid to keep their loyalty at a time when it appeared she might be impeached over vote-buying in the 2004 election. , .

Aquino first wavered on making the reproductive health bill one of his priorities, then included it in the package later. Among the others are bills designed to expand science and technology programs, amend the rural electrification law, expand consumer protection and raise sin taxes. A freedom of information bill, which had been expected to be included is not in the package, although officials at Malacañang Palace, the presidential palace, said they were working on a measure.

The big problem, critics say, is that Aquino is squandering the goodwill that greeted his election last year, when he was elected with a strong plurality over his next-biggest challenger, Joseph Estrada, winning more than 15.2 million votes over Estrada’s 9.4 million and Manuel Villar’s 5.5 million. Critics characterize his administration as rudderless and indecisive, with the competence and even honesty of some of his appointments under question. Foreign investors have been discouraged by the fact that the administration has halted several infrastructure projects won by international companies despite the pressing need to upgrade the country’s woeful transport, road and other systems.

Lawmakers at the Ledac meeting earlier this week seemed to be frustrated by the process, saying that although they took along their own bills for discussion, the meeting turned into one in which Aquino’s forces presented their own priorities without attempting to interact with the Senate despite the fact that Aquino was essentially a creature of the Congress, having been elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, then the Senate in 2007.

Whether Aquino’s presidential style will get in the way of the passage of the priority measures remains to be seen. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have different reproductive health measures making their way through each house. The senate appears slightly miffed that Aquino was presenting the House version.

The palace has been busily amending the reproductive health bill in a bid to make it palatable to lawmakers. But, Aquino told reporters earlier, “There will be certain segments that view any talk about artificial means of responsible parenthood as anathema to their beliefs, so they will not be satisfied with it. But we have tried to remove certain issues that can be contentious.”