Yesterday was another State of Nation Address (SONA) day in the Philippines.
The SONA is supposed to be a report of the country’s chief executive on his government’s accomplishments over the past year as well as his plans for the future. In the case of the incumbent, President Benigno S. Aquino III, his plans for the remaining two years of his term.
Sadly, the SONA had been transformed into something less than that.
For one, the exercise has become a fashion spectacle, an obscene, ostentatious and insensitive display of wealth, pomp, and bad taste in the midst of hunger and poverty. You have the people’s representatives and servants trying to outdo each other on the red carpet.
Second, it became a game of up-onemanship, a very swell pissing contest. A president will list his accomplishments and declare he did more than his predecessors. Or all other previous administrations combined, for that matter. What should he do that? Does he have to do that? Under the 1987 Constitution, he is limited to a single term. He is not eligible to run for re-election. Why behave like a candidate on the hustings? Why can’t he locate himself in a continuing narrative of nation-building even if one president supposedly accomplished more than others?
Why can’t a president talk and report to the nation as the President of all Filipinos and not as leader of his party?
After all, the members of the opposition are fellow Filipinos, fellow citizens, and thus also his constituents.
Can a reform of our winner-take-all electoral possibly remedy this parochialism and short-sightedness? How about electing the president and the vice president as a single package, similar to what they do in the United States, to enhance unity at the very top of the country’s political leadership?
In the post-Marcos period, all chief executives have been put on the defensive sometime during their presidency and it has limited their effectivity. For some reason or the other, they sustain a significant dimunition of their political capital and suffer the consequences.
Even the saint-like Tita Cory saw a decrease of her political stock as her administration was unable to solve a power crisis (the same problem confronting his son at the moment). Only her clear intent not to succeed herself after 1992 prevented a further decrease in her political capital.
President Fidel V. Ramos developed a reputation of being a doer fortified by complete staff work (CSW) by his able lieutenants. He is the only post-Marcos president with a grand plan for the country (Philippines 2000) as well as the first one to plan to succeed himself. Thus the deliberate use of the year 2000 in the fighting slogan “Philippines 2000” even if his presidential term was supposed to end in June 1998.
Ramos’ image first took a hit with the execution of Flor Contemplacion, a Filipino domestic, in Singapore on murder charges. Most Filipinos believed she was innocent of the crime, that she was wrongly accused and put to death, and that the Philippine government acquiesced to the Singapore government’s judgement and did not do much to help her escape death.
Ramos’s bid to succeed himself through PIRMA was foiled by the opposition of erstwhile allies led by Jaime Cardinal Sin and Tita Cory. What finally did him was the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.
While President Joseph “Erap” Estrada was elected in 1998 by the single largest number of voters in the country’s political history, his downfall was swift. As early as 2000, he faced accusations of grand corruption and tried to parry his political opponents by launching a war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao. Eventually, he was impeached and removed by another people power insurrection in January 2001, after only two years and seven months in power.
As vice president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) assumed the office and served the remainder of President Estrada’s term. The constitutional restrictions of a single term did not apply to her and she successfully stood for election as president in May 2004. Following the 2005 revelation of her taped conversations with a top Commission on Elections (COMELEC) official suggesting that the count be tampered in her favor, GMA was put on the so-called “survival mode”. She was hounded by corruption charges during the remainder of her term, largely because of the unsavory reputation of her husband, the First Gentleman Mike Arroyo.
This time around, President Noynoy Aquino has to deal with a Supreme Court decision that declared his Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) (or budget impounding schemes, as other would have it) unconstitutional. His popularity rating plummeted and he faces impechment complaints–an entirely new situation for him. He chose to go on an offensive short of calling the Supreme Court as the chief obstruction to his progressive reforms. His defense: he did what he did for the good of the people. He says he will follow processes and file a motion for reconsideration with the Court. Then he commits the gaffe of accusing the Court of committing the same proscribed cross-border transactions when in fact, the Court did not.
In yesterday’s SONA, the President wisely backed away from his tirades against the Supreme Court. What he did was to ask his allies in the Lower House to act on a proposed P2.3 trillion 2015 budget which will give him the leeway to spend public money as he saw fit.
He spent the initial part of the SONA listing his accomplishments in a rather haphazard manner and lacking a unifying or thematic framework that could have earned him a very low grade if he was making the presentation in my class. It was too micro and a big picture is barely discernible.
While the accomplishments are praiseworthy, I would have wanted them to be presented in the context of what needs to be done for the remainder of his term. A generic “good governance” may suffice at the beginning of his term but is inadequate given the context of his remaining years.
I think he made a few assertions regarding the swiftness of government’s response to the super-typhoon Haiyan that can be effectively challenged by the victims themselves and fact checkers.
The single most important gap is the parochialism of the speech. President Aquino focused on domestic matters and did not respond to urgent foreign policy concerns. For instance, there was no mention of (continuing?) preparations for the impending 2015 full integration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
He spends some choice minutes by attacking his critics and so-called “enemies of reform” first before individually naming and praising allies and well-meaning Filipinos who can continue his reform efforts even after he steps down from the Presidency. He succumbed to the cheap joy of finding comfort among friends instead of embarking on the more difficult path of reaching out and establishing broad unity.
While I am pessimistic of the prospects, I do hope he will change his stance and will be the President of all Filipinos. That is after all what is contained in his oath of office.