After Aquino: Time for 'Effective Governance' in the Philippines

Democracy is not only about freely choosing your leaders; it is also about choosing the best possible leaders, who can effectively oversee day-to-day administration.
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In his newly-released magisterial work, Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama discusses the emergence of modern bureaucracy, the importance of effective public administration, and the perils of rising economic inequality in modern democracies. Although he hasn't fully abandoned his original thesis in The End of History -- that democratic capitalism has emerged as the ideological endpoint of history - Fukuyama has, building on Samuel Huntington's classic work Political Development and Political Decay, realized the inherent and seemingly insurmountable difficulties associated with successful democratization.

Interestingly, he also underscores the potential for mature democracies to fall prey to institutional decay, which is characterized by political gridlock, perversion of democratic institutions by private interest groups, and the hijack of partisan politics by a determined minority of radicals. Perhaps, his most important contribution is his emphasis on the inseparability of effective administration and democratic governance.

Prosperous autocratic states such as Singapore and China demonstrate how possessing a modern bureaucracy doesn't necessarily guarantee democratization. But no democracy can survive without possessing an effective, impersonal Weberian bureaucracy, which is capable of delivering public goods, ensuring public safety, and autonomously pursuing collective interest. This is precisely the lesson that many developing democracies such as the Philippines tend to overlook. Charisma, free elections, and freedom of expression can't make up for weak, fragmented state institutions and the absence of rule of law. Democracy is not only about freely choosing your leaders; it is also about choosing the best possible leaders, who can effectively oversee day-to-day administration.

It's All About Corruption

Since his ascent to power in 2010, Philippine President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino has ushered in an unprecedented period of post-Machiavellian 'moral politics': An obsessive focus on combating high-level corruption -- the supposed source of all that is vile and despicable -- to revive a broken nation. And he has done this with a tinge of self-righteousness, constantly placing himself above the fray -- and portraying himself as the embodiment of the national conscience. In his moral crusade against the forces of evil, he has often been unkind -- if not overly sensitive -- to criticism, even if they emanate from smartest of allies.

As he approaches the twilight years of his presidency, Aquino has become less popular, more irritable, and slightly more sentimental. His critics fervently claim that his anti-corruption initiatives have been lopsided, purportedly focused on leading opponents alone but off-limit to allies. Despite some evidence suggesting that possibly hundreds of politicians and private citizens may have been embroiled in systemic corruption, particularly in connection to the liquidation of discretionary legislative funds (i.e., Priority Development Assistance Fund), much of the ongoing investigations have seemingly focused on the most high-profile figures, some seen as formidable presidential candidates in 2016. When three high profile senators were put in jail, on charges of corruption, there were even concerns as to whether the Philippine government had sufficient facilities for their appropriate accommodations. It is a big question whether the Philippine bureaucracy -- it's judicial, investigative and law enforcement agencies -- can expeditiously (in accordance to due process) handle the potential incarceration of hundreds of officials accused of corruption. Interestingly under President Xi Jinping, autocratic China has disciplined up to 200,000 officials on charges of corruption.

The Philippines is still suffering from concentrated growth, with a handful of conglomerates and powerful families enjoying the fruits of new-found prosperity in the country. Legions of poor and unemployed are still waiting for the (imaginary) 'trickle down' of an expanding economic pie. In terms of infrastructure, the Philippines still lags behind its peers, with delays and alleged bidding anomalies hobbling big-ticket projects, which are necessary for the creation of a truly modern economy. Some experts have raised concerns as to whether there are enough competent engineers and economists -- rather than, say, lawyers -- in agencies, which are in charge of infrastructure development. Widespread corruption among low- to medium-level officials and politicians is still a source of concern, despite the country's slight improvement in the Transparency International's rankings.

In terms of foreign policy, the Aquino administration has shown diminishing strategic imagination. It has placed all its strategic eggs in the legal basket, naively expecting that China -- today's global superpower, and a proud, old civilization -- will succumb to international arbitration over its sweeping territorial claims across the South China Sea. Instead of engaging China, his government has resorted to high-minded rhetoric, filled with drama and passion, but with little sense of urgency on how to best keep a perceived regional bully at bay. Almost all of China's rival claimant states in the Western Pacific, including Vietnam and Japan, have assiduously pursued high-level diplomatic engagement with China, coupled with relentless efforts at establishing crisis management mechanisms (e.g., hotlines) to prevent an outright conflict.

Astonishingly, the Aquino administration has even postponed the much-needed refurbishment and upgrade of Philippine facilities on the prized Thitu Island in the South China Sea in order to supposedly maintain the "moral high ground" amid its arbitration case against China. The Thitu Island (Pag-Asa to Filipinos) is the second largest habitable feature in the Spratlys, which (i) can generate its own 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and (ii) is crucial to the Armed Forces of the Philippines' (AFP) ability to project power well across the Philippine-claimed waters. Practically all other claimant states, with the exception of fabulously rich and tiny Brunei, have fortified their positions in the South China Sea -- an up for grabs area of contention.

Nonetheless, majority of Filipinos continue to praise Aquino for his efforts at introducing a measure of decency and predictability into the perennially capricious and disappointing Philippine state. It is far from clear, however, whether he will be able to deliver on his promises before he steps down from office in 2016. His greatest legacy would most likely be his heartfelt dedication to confront veteran politicians accused of large-scale corruption as well as his ability to oversee above-average growth rates for an unusually extended period (although it is far from clear whether his administration should be solely credited for the recent economic uptick).

Towards Effective Governance

In an essay for the Foreign Affairs magazine, Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino memorably wrote: "Filipinos are bewildered about their identity. They are an Asian people not Asian in the eyes of their fellow Asians and not Western in the eyes of the West." For him, the roots of the Philippines' predicament lie in the Filipino leadership's tendency to "abdicat[e] control over basic areas of their national life [to foreign powers], unaccustomed to coming to grips with reality, [and] prone to escape into fantasies." Almost four decades henceforth, the Filipino political class continues to exhibit these characteristics.

In terms of its foreign policy, the Philippines still excessively relies on foreign powers to defend its own territorial interests. For decades, it has had the chance to modernize its armed forces and hone its diplomatic acumen. But as Roilo Golez, a former Philippine National Security Advisor, recently told me: "Nothing was achieved by way of minimum deterrence during the 1990s and 2000s. During that time, AFP modernization items were for minor items like field communications equipment, night vision equipment, among others, which were useless for defending our territorial claims in the South China Sea."

Despite having a smaller economy than the Philippines, with a similarly large but even poorer population, Vietnam has managed to fortify its construction activities across the South China Sea and develop an increasingly modern military. When it comes to its foreign policy, it fervently pursues non-alignment, refusing to rely on any single power for its national security. As Vietnam's Ambassador to the Philippines, Truong Trieu Duong, proudly told me: "It is a consistent policy of Vietnam not to ally with any countries against the others. So definitely, Vietnam would not have any kind of agreements like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the US and the Philippines... In order to defend the country's sovereignty, Vietnam has also been developing our arm forces strong enough to stand against any kind of foreign aggression."

Some Filipino leaders continue to think of corruption as the main cause behind the country's contemporary ills. But what they fail to see is how corruption and lack of an imaginative foreign policy is a reflection of the Philippines' most fundamental problem: The absence of an effective, autonomous state. Since its inception, under the auspices of Spanish conquistadors, the Philippines has been under the yoke of an oligarchy, which has prevented the establishment of a competent, self-reliant, and independently-minded national bureaucracy that is capable of ensuring rule of law, rallying the nation behind a collective cause, efficiently implementing public projects, and reining in nefarious influence from within and without.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the next administration will focus on developing the capacity and autonomy of the Philippine bureaucracy, recruit competent and dedicated public servants, and devise a more creative approach to secure the Philippines' territorial integrity and national interest. As for the Filipino voters, effective governance should serve as their main criteria for selecting the next leaders. That is the best way to secure the Philippines' democratic gains -- and unleash the real potentials of the Filipino nation.

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