Thursday, July 7, 2011

Philippines’ Pnoy Aquino's First Year

Some good, some bad, about what was expected

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III told reporters Wednesday that he has sold his US$102,000 Porsche. Although Aquino, the scion of one of the country’s richest families, said he had sold the third-hand white sports car because it had become a security risk, Pnoy, as he has come to be known, was also under considerable criticism because it was allegedly inappropriate for the leader of a chronically poor country.

However, Aquino has considerably more problems with his image than the fact that he can afford to drive a relatively expensive car. In the year since he took office on June 30, 2010, his net satisfaction rating, as measured by the Social Weather Station polling operation, has fallen from a high of 64 percent in November 2010 to 46 percent in the latest poll on June 3-6.

Part of the decline was to be expected. Aquino took office in bathed in the glow left by his dead mother, Corazon, the widow of the assassinated Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino II, a strong foe of the strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Her own luster has grown the farther the country gets from her presidency. Her own satisfaction rating, as high as 72 percent in October of 1986, had fallen to 36 percent when she left.

In many ways, analysts say, Aquino’s presidency is on the same trajectory that his mother’s took. His anti-corruption crusade has largely been aimed at his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, as his mother’s was against Marcos. Four cases currently are being developed against top Arroyo officials, and Gloria herself is believed to be a target of a major corruption case. He has succeeded in getting his allies in the House of Representatives to push out former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and several subordinates, either through impeachment, dismissal or resignation. That removed a major protector of the Arroyo family from the equation.

Otherwise, his administration has been characterized by his critics as rudderless and indecisive, with the competence of some of his appointees under question. However, comparisons of his appointments with those of his predecessors put him in relatively positive territory. In a speech illustrating his first year’s accomplishments, he listed good governance and restoration of public trust as his main accomplishments. While critics may grumble at that, rudderless and indecisive or no, lackluster or no, he grades considerably higher than Arroyo, and considerably higher than Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who was driven from office

So far, he has been blessed with a relatively strong economy in a world where that is an anomaly. Industrial production soared to an 11.2 percent annual pace in 2010 and is forecast by HSBC to hit 8.9 percent in 2010. Inflation, a growing problem for all of Asia, is becoming troublesome, with the Consumer Price Index rising at a 5.6 percent clip in the third quarter of 2011 and expected to stay at about that level in the fourth quarter. More than 11 million are jobless, according to a March survey, which pushes more and more Filipinos to seek work abroad. That puts severe strains on families as one or both parents go overseas to work.

Investment, a chronic problem in the Philippines, was a healthy 19.5 percent in 2010, falling to a still-healthy – for the Philippines – forecast of 10.4 percent in 2010. However, foreign investors have been discouraged by the fact that the administration has halted some infrastructure projects. In particular, Aquino canceled a Belgian company’s R18.7 billion (US$434 million) dredging project in Laguna Lake, the country’s largest source of freshwater fish, which has an average depth of only two meters. He also ordered the review of a China-funded railway project that has been criticized as riddled with corruption, and demanded the renegotiation of a French project to build 72 steel roll-on, roll-off ports across the island nation.

While there may be questions about the contracts, Aquino’s cancellation of them has not only slowed badly needed development in the country but calls up the habit of Filipino presidents of cancelling projects their predecessors initiated. In particular, it is a seeming throwback to Gloria Arroyo’s squabble over the German builders of the new terminal at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which lay unused for years after it was finished while air passengers had to endure other enormously crowded airport facilities.

Although Aquino himself appears to be above reproach, Porsche or no, critics say he has gone easy on political allies and friends who have been accused of wrongdoing. He did not dismiss Undersecretary Rico Puno, the head of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, after the disastrous mishandling of last y ear’s hostage crisis, in which a disgruntled and dismissed former police officer commandeered a busload of Hong Kong tourists, leading to an hours-long standoff that ended in disaster when the gunman started shooting. Eight passengers were killed, seven more wounded on live television before the gunman was finally killed. The incident became a major grievance between the mainland Chinese government and Malacañang Palace.

Aquino also allowed Panfilo Lacson, a political ally from his days in the Senate, to return to Manila from hiding in Hong Kong. Lason was wanted for complicity in the 2001 murder of publicist Salvador “Bubby” Dacer, and his driver. Former President Joseph Estrada has been accused of ultimately being behind the murder, although no arrests have ever been made. Estrada was said to believe Dacer, whose clients included some of the top political figures in the Philippines, was seeking to end his scandal-ridden rule.

The country has a long way to go. Its infrastructure ranks among the worst in Asia and there appear to be few signs that the government is seeking to make it any better. Aquino has made tax collections, a chronic problem given the country’s legions of scofflaws, a notable goal, and one that eluded his predecessor after early attempts to improve them. Also, after years in which exploration for oil and gas stalled, the Department of Energy announced in May that it was bidding out 15 oil and gas contracts on blocks under the Sulu and South China Seas.

The Philippines, like all other littoral states surrounding the South China Sea, is facing an aggressive and big Chinese navy which is claiming the entire body of water and the mineral rights under it. Aquino is also seeking to move along exploitation of the country’s long-stalled mineral rights. The country is estimated to have as much as US$1 trillion in gold and other minerals in the ground. However, development has been stalled by environmentalists, the Catholic Church, local rivalries, Islamic separatists on Mindanao, and Communist insurgents in other parts of the country.

In all, it has been a year of fits and starts to Aquino’s presidency, about what most observers expected. It is a presidency that may not bathe in the glow of his mother’s, but then again, neither did hers. Asia Sentinel

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