Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute
The year 2020 has been the most challenging period for the Duterte Administration. On one hand, Philippine governance and society are now confronted by compound problems caused by or aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and government measures to control the spread of infections—a weak health care system, inadequate social protection, economic crisis, social dislocation, threats to democratic norms.
On the other hand, opportunities have also emerged that should prod government and society to undertake productive partnerships toward recovery, and hopefully sustainable growth.
The gargantuan amount of taxpayer money in the form of ayuda or assistance that was dispensed to millions of displaced Filipinos has easily and swiftly translated into utang na loob, further embedding the practice of patronage politics in our society. Worse, ayuda and utang na loob have made the most affected segments of society—the poor and unemployed—even more mendicant and dependent on government support. What the government has spent and what it plans to spend more is, plainly and simply, public money.
The pandemic and the measures imposed to control it resulted in adverse effects, as shown by surveys showing new record levels of poverty, hunger, unemployment, and quality of life. These could be likened to the Latin American experience that Dr. Andrés Mejía Acosta of King’s College London called the “ghost of populism.”
While leaders are expected to manifest strong political will, their legitimacy is determined by whether they promote genuine public interest or not. As Dr. Francisco Magno noted in his study “Reviving democratic institutions: Strengthening the fight against corruption”: “The narrative of a strong political will is relevant in the push for strong democratic institutions. This is not equivalent to the will of the leader but rather speaks of the general will of the democratic polity.”
Transparency International has emphasized the importance of political integrity, where government, policy, and the exercise of power are “independent from private interests, and not using power to maintain the office holder’s own wealth and position.” Populist leadership, on the other hand, by virtue of being divisive and having a polarizing effect on the population, can only promote narrow interests. Hence, populist politics do not go hand in hand with political integrity and public interest.
Across political timelines, different types of leaders come and go. But what makes a political system survive and thrive is the set of institutions that operate within. Thus, institutional reforms anchored on transparency, accountability, and the rule of law are critical. Alongside efforts by independent thought leaders to leverage democratic platforms, the improved and transformative roles of political parties and civil society, supported by evidence-based research and analysis, can insulate government policymaking from vested interests.
With 16 months to go before the 2022 national elections, political parties, civil society, independent thought leaders, and the academe should join hands to push for political reforms that would ensure cleaner and freer elections.
As for economic recovery and growth in the next normal, this feat is achievable only if the government sees fit to partner with the private sector. The advantage of such a partnership is two-fold: Robust investments are possible only by teaming up with private enterprises, and the latter sector also provides jobs and livelihoods to millions of people. Unity rather than division, and shared prosperity rather than poverty, are what the country needs going into the next normal.
During and beyond the pandemic, recovery and growth will only happen through a whole-of society approach, with the interactive engagement of institutions, civil society, political parties, the academe, and the private sector. Populist politics by itself would be devoid of political integrity and long-term public interest.
This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.