We Filipinos have been so starved of good governance for so long that our appetite for it has become unlimited. What we hunger for is a whole archipelago of good governance. We want the blessings of good governance to spread through all our 7,100 islands—including even those submerged at high tide!
Yet, if the May 2008 State Department Global Report is to be believed, corruption and the uncertain rule of law still lie at the root of our political problems.
Achieving an archipelago of good governance will be a great challenge—because, in its geography, ecology, natural resource endowments, economy, ethnicity and culture, our country is extraordinary in its diversity.
Our fragmented geography produced a highly fragmented political system—whose ill effects we suffer until now.
Decentralization and national unity
Historically, political power in our country has been highly diffused. Until now, we as a people have a great deal to do to gather our regions, provinces, cities, towns and villages in one coherent Philippine state. Simply because the national government is inefficient, uncaring—and far away—local governments still enjoy a great deal of de facto autonomy.
But if local governments could still get away with interpreting national mandates to suit local power-holders, they also still must endure capricious releases of their IRA (internal revenue allotments) from an “imperial” Manila. The presidency’s immense power of the purse makes local governments extremely vulnerable to the political importunings of Malacañang. Consider how efficiently the Arroyo Administration’s political machine deals with oppositionist politicians who threaten her with impeachment.
Decentralization—which was finally accomplished in 1991 after being discussed for two decades—has been widely praised. It has increased the share of local governments in central government revenues; broadened the taxing authority of LGUs; and devolved some central government functions under the fine principle of subsidiarity.
Decentralization also plays to the already-strong sense of regional identity and loyalty that impedes the development of a national political identity. (Until now Cebuanos, Ilocanos and Bicolanos vote largely as language blocs. On occasion, Cebuanos apparently even sing the anthem in the local language.)
In the end, the gains in decentralization will be for naught if they do not also strengthen the national community.
What, then, could be done to connect our islands of good governance so that they can spread over larger portions of the archipelago?
Obviously we need to attract more idealistic, more vigorous and more courageous young people into local politics. And good people will never become attracted to local politics until they are assured their votes will get counted and they get a fighting chance at winning. This means we should all work for the thorough-going reform of our electoral system.
The things we need to do to reform our electoral system and set it on a new footing are well known. All we Filipinos lack is the political will. And this political will, civil-society reformers must supply—because the law of supply and demand also works in the political market. If policymakers are to be compelled to supply a specific type of public policy, there must be an expressed demand for it.
Professionalization of the civil service is another civic cause that LGUs should espouse. And this we can begin to do by raising salaries into rates competitive with the private sector; installing a meritocracy through service grades set by examinations; and stabilizing tenures by transferring the appointing power for officers from the President to the civil service system.
It would be difficult for our islands of good governance to raise the morale of their bureaucracies if these local bureaucracies must function in the context of a demoralized national civil service.
Certainly, too, LGUs should all benefit from a thorough-going study of how best to make full use of the new taxing powers that they’ve just been awarded; and the functions formerly assigned to Cabinet departments that have been devolved to them.
“Islands of Good Governance” should also seek constantly to spread their influence to neighboring provinces, cities, towns—most easily through economic complementation, economic clustering and administrative example.
We need a reformist President
Politically, most of our local governments still are enclaves of authoritarianism—ruled either by the traditional “big people” or by factional-machine bosses. Fortunately, in more recent times, development has built up “islands of good governance”—towns, cities and (a few) provinces that have come into the hands of reformist and modernizing local governments.
But local governments, by definition, have narrow limits. Local governments can only do so much. Their power and their influence only extend so far. So that, if we are to unify our islands of good governance into an archipelago of good governance, we will also need reforming and modernizing leadership at the national level—to match the quality of leadership already demonstrated by our local-government achievers.
In the Philippine context, such leadership can come only from a reforming and modernizing President. In our country, only the President has that kind of transformative political power.
And, unfortunately, raising such an exceptional national leader is beyond the capability of our present-day politics—which is still based overwhelmingly on the long-established patronage system.
To think otherwise is to delude ourselves, and to risk condemning our country to yet more years of corruption and disarray.
The patronage system compels the would-be President to make all sorts of sleazy deals to obtain the ‘command votes’ that only local warlords and factional bosses can deliver. And to finance these dubious transactions, he/she will willingly mortgage the office he/she has not yet even won to political entrepreneurs, vested interests, and oligarchic groups. Once in office, the same patronage system works to ensure the leader’s staying power.
There simply is no way a presidential candidate could avoid making these deals—and yet win, and once elected continue to remain in office. The single exception I could recall was the victory of General Ramos in 1992. But that was because of Ramos’ sterling reputation and the great number of candidates. The professional politicians, by splitting the command votes cancelled each other out and enabled Ramos to eke out a victory as a minority President with less than a quarter of the total vote.
No—I’m afraid an election as usual in 2010 will not give us the exceptional President we need, who will match your sense of devotion to your constituents with his/her sense of the nation, and his/her feeling for this country we all love.
Given the absence in our country of reformist/heroic leaders such as those who have risen in Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, it seems to me that you—our local political achievers—have no choice but to organize—once you are ready—a national ‘people power’ movement for good governance that would replicate nation-wide the phenomenal 2007 ‘people power’ election in Pampanga Province.
These are excerpts from a speech given by the author before the annual general assembly of the Galing Pook Foundation in Pasig City on 7 June 2008.