Saturday, May 22, 2010

Noynoy as fighter of corruption

President-elect Noynoy Aquino’s single-minded fixation on the elimination of graft and corruption in government is not surprising at all. His campaign slogan, “None Poor Without Corruption,” proved very effective and won him a plurality of votes over his closest opponents, former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada and Senator Manuel Villar, two candidates tainted by accusations of corruption.

During his short term as president, Erap was impeached because of his involvement in widespread corruption in government. Villar, on the other hand, was hounded by allegations of corruption in connection with a public infrastructure project that ran through a real estate development he owns.

Noynoy’s obsession with corruption is a copycat of former President Diosdado Macapagal’s campaign strategy during the 1961 national elections. One of Macapagal’s major campaign pledges was to wipe out government corruption that proliferated under former President Carlos P. Garcia. As president, Macapagal earned the sobriquet “The Incorruptible.” In an ironic twist of fate, his daughter, outgoing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was dubbed as the most corrupt president the Philippines has ever had after Ferdinand Marcos.

Now Noynoy Aquino promises to be the nation’s most determined fighter of corruption. This is a pledge Noynoy highlighted in his political platform which he calls his Social Contract with the Filipino People.

During the election campaign, Noynoy Aquino promised to arrest all those who are corrupt. If he was referring to his predecessor and her husband, army generals and other prominent officials of the Arroyo government, it remains to be seen whether Noynoy has the will power to make true his promise. Otherwise, Noynoy is simply blowing hot air.

At least the late president Diosdado Macapagal’s pledge against corruption was tested in the case of the deportation of Harry Stonehill, an American expatriate with a $50-million business empire in the Philippines.

Stonehill was accused of tax evasion, smuggling, and corruption of public officials. But Macapagal erred in deporting Stonehill instead of prosecuting him. His rationale for ordering Stonehill’s deportation was that his continued presence in the country was a distraction and had a corroding influence on national morale, which in retrospect seems suspicious considering the subject was an American, and wealthy and powerful no less.

Macapagal then turned his attention toward the brothers Fernando Lopez and Eugenio Lopez, who had controlling interests in several large businesses. He called the brothers the “Filipino Stonehills” who built their business empires through political power, including corruption of politicians and other government officials.

Macapagal failed to investigate the Lopezes and no charges were brought against them. When Macapagal ran for re-election in 1965, the Lopez brothers threw their political support to Ferdinand Marcos who won the election, with Fernando Lopez as his running mate.

Noynoy Aquino’s seriousness in prosecuting his predecessor and other officials of her government is betrayed by his utter lack of understanding of the challenges of poverty and inequality in the Philippines.

Noynoy’s slogan that blames corruption for the country’s widespread poverty is only a political stratagem. Its purpose is merely to gather votes. Plus, having a good sound bite, it simply denigrates his opponents who were already dragged in the mud by allegations of corruption against them.

Corruption takes centre stage in Noynoy’s political platform that calls for change. His platform states that corruption has a destructive effect on families and communities because it robs children of their protection, nutrition and education; it steals from farmers and workers; and it deters businessmen from investing in our economy. Furthermore, corruption, according to Aquino’s platform, has eroded our national spirit and caused our loss of trust in the democratic institutions initiated by the Cory Aquino’s presidency after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.

Arguably, there is an element of truth in the debilitating effects of corruption to the economy and to our society as a whole. But to single it out as the substantial cause of poverty is rather naïve and being badly-informed.

Noynoy Aquino majored in economics in college so he should understand that equality is good for growth and makes that growth more effective in reducing poverty.

The exceptional slice of national wealth that is owned by the very rich in the Philippines, and this is a very small percentage of the country’s total population, makes inequality extensive and pervasive. There is chronic poverty in the Philippines as a human consequence of inequality and its compounding effects.

But it seems out-of-fashion nowadays to advocate equality and wealth redistribution, which is also true in richer economies, because it has the connotation of taking the leftist position in the debate continuum. Look at how U.S. President Obama, for example, had been caricatured as being socialist for his health care reforms.

A more preferred source of information over other social weather stations known with leftist leanings, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), has identified the main causes of poverty in the Philippines.

The ADB pointed to the following: low to moderate economic growth for the past 40 years, low growth elasticity of poverty reduction, weakness in employment generation and the quality of jobs generated, failure to fully develop the agriculture sector, high inflation, high levels of population growth, high and persistent levels of inequality (incomes and assets), which dampen the positive impacts of economic expansion, and recurrent shocks and exposure to risks such as economic crisis, conflicts, natural and environmental disasters.

Instead of aiming his saber-rattling against corrupt officials, Noynoy Aquino should understand that to eliminate poverty, his administration must address those causes identified by the ADB.

Due to global recession, the Philippine economy is sinking further as unemployment continues to grow and extreme poverty remains unabated. It is under these circumstances that a social explosion could be expected as working people find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Noynoy should not wait for his leadership to be tested by military coups, similar to those that beset his own mother’s uneasy tenure.

Time, therefore, is of the essence. Noynoy Aquino must step up to the plate when he assumes the presidency. He should start mapping a coordinated poverty framework and strategy that will help the poor out of their doldrums, instead of grandstanding about his obsession to eliminate corruption. Even if he were successful in eradicating corruption and all its harmful effects to society, it would still not erase poverty on the Philippine map.

During her presidency, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo claimed that the Philippine economy has vastly improved and was growing at a high rate. If that was true, why are the benefits not trickling down to the masses?

Partly, because Arroyo’s economic policies, as with previous administrations, were designed to favour a handful of big business and landowning families. These few families own the largest slice of the country’s national economy.

For instance, Arroyo failed to implement meaningful land reforms citing legal technicalities. The government’s comprehensive land reform program which was started by Noynoy Aquino’s mother, Cory Aquino, had the initial aim of redistributing huge tracts of land from the rich to the poor farmers.

These are the same problems that face Noynoy’s presidency and have contributed substantially to poverty and inequality in the Philippines. If he wants to leave a lasting legacy as president, he should start with the transfer of Hacienda Luisita to its farmers and tenants. His family’s ownership of Hacienda Luisita only reflects the oligarchic control of the national economy by a powerful and wealthy few.

In his Social Contract with the Filipino People, Noynoy Aquino pledges to be different from the Arroyo government whom he accused of making up economic growth statistics which the Filipino people know to be untrue.

Sooner rather than later, Noynoy Aquino needs to match his lofty pronouncements with real and effective leadership and governance, if he wants to eliminate poverty and inequality in our country. Enough with grandstanding as the country’s number one fighter of corruption.

No comments: