COMMENTARY | by Sonny Africa | Candidates can cultivate an image of reform but what exactly, beyond the predictable motherhood statements, can and will they do?
Also on the elections and prospects under the incoming administration: The Ills of Privatized Elections; RP under new gov’t: is there hope for our backward economy?; First 100 days: beyond corruption, real steps to reform; From a weak republic: Challenges for the next administration; Seeking change: Will the May 2010 elections deliver?; The May 1 question: What hope has labor after the May 2010 polls?”
IBON Features — With less than a week to go before the May 10, 2010 elections, the most common question on voters’ minds is of course who to vote for. Knowing the value of their vote, most voters also ask which candidates will deliver change for themselves, their families and the country. If there is anything Filipinos want in May 2010 it is change from the political, economic and social disorder that the Arroyo administration leaves behind.
Yet how this change can begin to happen and the ‘best’ candidates to push this are unfortunately not as obvious as it might seem. The presidency for instance is the most important and highest-profile position at stake– but it is alarming that the presidentiables’ respective stands on the most urgent issues faced by the people still do not seem to figure prominently in their campaigns and hence in how voters will choose.
Candidates can cultivate an image of reform but what exactly, beyond the predictable motherhood statements, can and will they do?
Presidentiables’ stand on key people’s issues
The key issues confronting the country and challenging the candidates can be clustered into five main areas: 1) truth, accountability and justice; 2) economic progress and the environment; 3) people’s welfare; 4) sovereignty, peace and equality; and 5) love of country. The antidote to ambiguity and generalities is to ground these criteria in the concrete and specific problems that Filipinos face. These problems are clear and distinct enough that the presidential candidates can be assessed according to whether and how far they offer real solutions.
A presidentiable’s stand on an issue can be identified based on explicit declarations such as according to a platform, on positions taken in the past on related on government policies, programs or laws, and on his or her personal involvement on the matter.
Truth, accountability and justice
The candidates all declare themselves to be anti-corruption even as the most pressing corruption issues at hand have to do with Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, her family, and her allies in and out of government. The most pointed proposal comes from Noynoy Aquino who declared that he will set up a commission on the scandals surrounding Pres. Arroyo. JC delos Reyes, Richard Gordon, Jamby Madrigal, Nick Perlas, Eddie Villanueva and Manny Villar have also said that Pres. Arroyo should be held accountable for possible crimes committed. Administration candidate Gilbert Teodoro on the other hand settles for evasively declaring this a matter for the courts. Ousted president Joseph Estrada is of course unique for being the only candidate actually already convicted of plunder.
All similarly declare to uphold human rights but have widely varying positions in practice. Delos Reyes, Madrigal and Villanueva have openly opposed extrajudicial killings while Villar affirms seeking justice for human rights victims from the Marcos dictatorship to the present; Perlas does not appear to take a strong stand on these issues. Aquino, Madrigal and Teodoro voted against the controversial Human Security Act (Anti-Terror Law) – which Gordon and Villar voted for – while Delos Reyes trumpets supporting Barangay Human Rights Action Centers. Although Aquino spoke out against extrajudicial killings he is defensive on the Hacienda Luisita massacre and even downplays this. Estrada and Teodoro are both directly implicated in state-sponsored human rights violations during their stints as president and defense secretary, respectively.
Economic progress and the environment
The deterioration of the domestic economy affects millions of Filipinos yet it appears most candidates do not have a comprehensive grasp of the problem. Only Madrigal is able to articulate a nationalist economic program of meaningful agrarian reform, industrialization, and protection of the national patrimony. She filed related legislation and voted against the free trade deal with Japan; however she voted for the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program with Reforms (CARPer), or extension of the agrarian reform program, criticized by peasant groups as a pro-landlord bill.
Delos Reyes, Gordon, Perlas and Villanueva seem to approach land reform more from the point of view of agricultural productivity rather than social justice. Aquino abstained from voting on CARPer and in effect continues to defend his family’s stake in Hacienda Luisita which is a showcase of evading agrarian reform. Villar did not vote on CARPer and has said that he will review agrarian reform, yet is a real estate developer facing allegations of land-grabbing. There were no real land reform gains under the Estrada presidency, while Teodoro is dismissive of such government support for the peasantry.
Villar and to some degree Villanueva acknowledge the importance of developing local manufacturing. They also express being critical of so-called globalization and call for a review, as do Delos Reyes and Perlas. Conversely Aquino, Estrada, Gordon and Teodoro are the most aggressive in opening up the domestic economy to foreign investors (even in large-scale mining, with the exception of Aquino who is silent on the matter).
The record joblessness can only be arrested upon reversing the economy’s decline but there can still be immediate measures to improve the people’s welfare. Madrigal has taken on all workers’ major demands of higher wages (supporting a nationwide P125 hike), banning contractualization and defense of migrant rights. Villanueva and Villar likewise support higher wages, with the latter open to legislating a wage hike; Delos Reyes and Villanueva both oppose contractualization. Gordon, Perlas and Teodoro are silent on increasing wages. Estrada resisted wage hikes during his terms while Aquino, despite pushing legislation against non-compliance with the minimum wage and for productivity incentives for workers, tolerated the poor wages of Hacienda Luisita farmworkers.
Debt service payments have long been proposed as a source of increased funding for social services. Madrigal has the most defined position and advocates cancelling or repudiating debt, imposing a cap, and even demanding reparations for payments already made on onerous debt. Delos Reyes, Gordon and Villanueva appear open to at least a moratorium while Perlas and Villar are amenable to changing the law on automatic appropriation and pursuing debt relief. The Estrada administration faithfully paid debt, while apparently able to give relatively greater priority to education than all the other post-Marcos governments, and Teodoro promises do likewise. Aquino has no clear position on the issue.
Filipinos suffer a regressive tax burden. Madrigal voted against the RVAT law and other tax measures, Delos Reyes says that he will lower the VAT on food, water and electricity, Perlas vows he will lessen the tax burden on the poor, and Villanueva says he wants progressive taxation. In contrast Aquino, Gordon, and Villar voted for RVAT and so-called sin taxes (with Gordon authoring the sin taxes law). Aquino and Villar say that they are open to imposing new taxes while Teodoro has already proposed raising the VAT from 12% to 15 percent. Among Estrada’s crimes was pocketing hundreds of millions in tobacco taxes for himself.
Sovereignty, peace and equality
Philippine governments have persistently yielded to big foreign powers especially the United States (US). Madrigal unequivocally opposes foreign military presence in the country and stands for the repeal of military treaties with the US. Delos Reyes, Perlas and Villar in turn only seek a review of the US-RP Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and other unequal military treaties. Aquino, Gordon and Teodoro are particularly vocal in their support of the US military presence in the country while the controversial VFA was ratified during the Estrada administration.
Deep poverty and inequality have underpinned the armed conflicts on-going in the country involving the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Madrigal, Perlas and Villar support peace talks and addressing the socioeconomic and political roots of the conflicts. In contrast, Estrada opted to wage “all-out war” against the MILF, while Teodoro criticizes the “hearts and minds” approach to insurgency as too soft and advocates greater militarism. Aquino, Delos Reyes, Gordon and Villanueva have not publicly stated a clear stand on the resumption of talks. Villanueva does however acknowledge the underpinnings of conflict and his “long-term peace agenda” includes socioeconomic measures.
On long-neglected gender issues, Madrigal is again most specific in identifying and opposing various forms of gender inequality such as unequal pay, discriminatory access to work, sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse, and sexist culture and biases. Gordon also declares opposition but does not go into any detail, which in effect places him astride Aquino, Perlas, Teodoro, Villanueva and Villar who have no clear stand on the matter. Delos Reyes meanwhile has actually articulated a position against women asserting their rights while Estrada is unrepentant about his undisguised womanizing.
Love of country
Nationalist values have been particularly disparaged in the age of globalization. Only Madrigal and Villanueva are conscious to actively promote nationalism and patriotism, including but not restricted to prioritizing the national language as the medium of instruction; Delos Reyes supports nationalist filmmaking in particular. Aquino, Estrada, Gordon, Perlas, Teodoro and Villlar do not have a clear stand.
Assessing the presidentiables
The People’s Criteria seek to assess candidates’ declarations and practice in terms of the demand for meaningful change and from a patriotic, pro-people and democratic standpoint. The underlying questions are big and imposing: Who will be genuinely anti-corruption as well as uphold human rights? Who is open to radical economic and social reforms that break from the failed policies of the past? Who will stand for sovereignty and social justice? At the same time the issues at hand are specific and concrete: grand-scale corruption and electoral fraud by the Arroyo administration; worsening poverty, inequality and underdevelopment due to globalization policies; and state-sponsored human rights violations and political repression.
Applying the criteria to the presidentiables, Madrigal appears to have the most progressive position overall. She articulates a nationalist economic and political agenda aside from having a record in the Senate of taking progressive stands on key legislation. Aside from these she also has a record of taking up advocacies of people’s organizations. Despite these– or some might say because of these– her candidacy appears unable to gain traction which precludes her platform being leveraged through the presidency. None of the other lagging candidates coming from already holding political office or even civil society have been able to formulate a similarly coherent alternative agenda.
The profile and nature of the leading candidates if anything affirm how Philippine elections remain fundamentally elite- and money-driven. The unfortunate implication is that the corresponding front-runners whose agenda are much less progressive (or even retrogressive) are the only ones who have the political influence to pursue these. Pushing for consequential reforms will then demand an even greater effort from organized grassroots forces to seize what democratic space and opportunities exist or can be created.
Aquino’s appeal appears to stem from being portrayed as anti-corruption and a reluctant candidate–which establish his credentials as a non-ambitious and non-traditional politician– and from being depicted as heir to his parents’ democratic legacies. Glaring however is the absence of a broader and cohesive political, economic and social reform agenda. Aquino is also compromised by his personal stake in retarded land reform, through Hacienda Luisita and whatever other landholdings their family has, and a deferential attitude to US intervention in and influence over the country.
Villar meanwhile plays up his supposed personal odyssey from poverty to riches as something that the country’s poor can similarly undertake. He does not have a particularly progressive legislative record although it is positive that he has spelled out an economic and political agenda with relatively progressive elements. Even if this agenda is only of recent vintage and mainly prompted by the electoral alliance forged with the country’s mainstream Left political parties, it could indicate an openness to building consensus with non-traditional and alternative political groups. However his candidacy appears to be hurting from allegations of corruption in the C-5 highway extension as well as accusations of being the unpopular Pres. Arroyo’s preferred candidate.
The Estrada candidacy stands out not just for being a presidential re-election bid but also in bearing the outcomes of the previous presidency– beyond any formally articulated agenda his stand is defined by an outright plunder conviction (albeit later pardoned), and the economic disarray and political disorder under his administration. Teodoro was ever only worth considering only as the official administration candidate and presumed main beneficiary of its formidable resources and machinery. To be sure, among all the candidates his position on political and economic issues is the most continuous with that of the Arroyo administration.
The People’s Choice: Advancing democracy
The May 2010 elections reflect the state of Philippine democracy which evidently remains a work in progress. Among the implications of the country’s retarded democracy is that the likely winner may not yet fully represent the people’s interest– he or she will come from the ranks of the country’s elite oligarchy and will be most strongly influenced by the sorts of anti-people and anti-democratic influences that have long kept the majority poor, exploited and marginalized.
The coming elections cannot in themselves yet bring about the real change that people seek. What is more realistic is to view the May 2010 elections as a way to contribute to creating the conditions for that real change to take place. IBON Features