The sharp fall in the trust and satisfactory ratings of President Aquino and other officials is not just a credibility issue. More than this, it reflects a deep national concern over failures gnawing at the most powerful institution and leaving wounds in people’s lives. The latest survey results assailed a refusal to accept accountability—in this case, command responsibility for the botched Mamasapano operation. They also captured presidential insensitivity to a public clamor to right a wrong—at the very least, a public apology for the death of police officers sent on an impossible mission.
Mr. Aquino’s trust and approval ratings began to dip after the Rizal Park hostage crisis in August 2010—barely two months into his term—when presidential command was nowhere in sight. There were periods of slight recovery, but the drop persisted throughout the pork barrel scandal and after Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” followed by a sharp dive beginning in February. The figures aggregated public reactions to blunders committed and incompetence and indecisiveness shown during tragedies and scandals. Political allies were shielded from the pork barrel investigations, while critical decisions—as in the crises involving the Rizal Park hostage-taking and Mamasapano—were entrusted to influential but unauthorized persons.
But the dim public perception of the President cannot be attributed solely to massive disappointment over the gap between his 2010 “social contract” and his failure to walk the talk, compounded by the poverty and unemployment that worsened under his watch. It reflects mounting public dissatisfaction starting from the Marcos years over the misuse of power from one administration to the next for personal gain, corruption, plunder and other crimes. It is a collective narrative of a people who removed incorrigible presidents and replaced them with persons of the same mold.
The presidency is the center of a government that is unable to reform, whether in undoing the system of political clans, in institutionalizing tough measures to curb corruption, in asserting the rule of law, or in addressing socioeconomic ills.
Under the presidency, the anarchic and patronage-driven governance system predictably promotes social inequities. Two years ago, the Philippines’ 40 richest families cornered 76.5 percent of the gross domestic product, compared with 2.8 percent in Japan, 5.6 percent in Malaysia and 34 percent in Thailand. The families’ combined wealth amounted to the total income of 60 million Filipinos. The Philippines also has the highest income gap among Asean’s 10 member-countries.
In the 2014 Fragile State Index (FSI) of the Fund for Peace, the Philippines was ranked No. 52 of 178 countries, with No. 1 (South Sudan) as the lowest. The FSI indicators included, among others, poverty; government performance, electoral process and corruption; poor delivery of social services; factionalized elites; internal conflict; and imposed foreign interventions. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines was outpaced by Singapore (158), Brunei (124), Malaysia (117), Vietnam (98), Indonesia (82), Thailand (80) and Laos (56).
The Philippines has also been described as a “failed state,” “a democratizing state,” or an “unconsolidated democracy.” In this light, the failure of past and current presidencies and the subsequent public response should raise the question: Is the search for a model president the only remedy? Like past regimes, the incumbent administration was built by a myth that “only an Aquino,” no matter how ill-equipped for the position, could clean up the government. Choosing a president—or, for that matter, other officials at all levels—is a process unmarked by fair competition given the dominance of political clans, the lack of an independent election administrator, and a well-entrenched fraud machinery with a modern face—the automated election system. Thus, the remedy may no longer lie in looking for a model president, as this has been shown to be mere wishful thinking. The remedy lies in pushing for the collective expression of a growing number of Filipinos who crave systemic change.
There have been various paradigms for state reform, such as amending the Constitution to reduce presidential powers and adopt federalism or a parliamentary system of government. Backed by at least three presidents, the proposed Charter change was widely rejected for being a veiled attempt to either restore authoritarianism or remove the remaining protectionist provisions in the Constitution. Likewise, recurring political instabilities unleashed attempts to install a civilian-military junta reminiscent of martial rule.
On the other hand, the overhaul of the elitist political system has been the clamor of the ideological Left, whose armed wing has been waging a revolutionary war and agrarian reform for the past 46 years. Inspired by a socialist vision and the target of every president’s all-out war since Marcos, the Leftist movement endures as an option. The country is also riven by other armed conflicts in the South, led by Moro revolutionary forces driven by self-determination.
Although the Philippine state has long been ripe for change, it will probably take another generation to bear fruit. It needs a critical and organized mass rallying behind the idea of change; a visible and well-articulated political alternative with credible leadership that enjoys the support of the populace; and an alternative program of governance that embodies the people’s broad democratic interests.
Bobby M. Tuazon is policy director of CenPEG (Center for People Empowerment in Governance) and a former head of the University of the Philippines Manila’s political science program.