Message to Aquino

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DID WE GET that right? Was Benigno Aquino III blaming the Arroyo regime for the 15 percent drop in his September approval ratings?

Mr. Aquino blames his predecessor’s administration for the corruption that has metastasized in the public sector, the poverty that afflicts millions of Filipinos, and the poor performance of the economy, among other ills. But perhaps because this was the first time his approval ratings have had a two-digit decline, Mr. Aquino, whose approval ratings had been phenomenal since he took office, also blamed that on the Arroyo administration.

A Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey found that 68 percent of SWS respondents approved of Mr. Aquino’s performance, while 19 percent, compared to 12 percent last March, did not. That’s a net approval rating of +49, compared to +64 last March, when SWS found that 76 percent of its 1,200 respondents approved of Mr. Aquino’s performance compared to 12 percent who did not.

In an impromptu interview at Camp Aguinaldo, Mr. Aquino was quoted as saying that it was public outrage over the pork barrel scandal that was responsible for the drop in his approval ratings. True enough. But he also said that the scandal occurred between 2007 and 2009 before he was elected to the Presidency, and that he was probably being “dragged into the scandal” because “we’re all in government.”

The last phrase recognizes the tendency among Filipinos to condemn everyone in government as uniformly corrupt, unreliable, and/or incompetent. It’s not as irrational as it may seem.

Mass cynicism over government is the result of citizen experience with practically every administration since US recognition of Philippine independence in 1946. But the intensity of that cynicism has varied over the decades. It waxes and wanes according to citizen perception of what’s happening in government, and on whether something occurs to revive citizen hopes, usually whenever there are changes in administration.

Post-1946 cynicism over government was highest during the latter years of the Marcos administration, despite the rigged surveys that uniformly showed record public approval of the regime. Across many sectors, whether among workers, farmers, students, professionals or even businessmen, on the eve of its collapse there was near-universal distrust and even contempt for the Marcos dictatorship. But the cynicism gave way to the surge in confidence in government that followed Corazon Aquino’s assuming the Presidency.

Mrs. Aquino was widely perceived to be the answer not only to the demand for a new leadership, but also to the hopes for the democratization and transformation of Philippine society, despite her modest focus on merely restoring such institutions of liberal democracy as periodic elections and drafting a new constitution. The disappointment that occurred during the latter part of her term was driven by the contrast between the immensity of public expectations and what she was able to deliver. But until her death Mrs. Aquino nevertheless remained a symbol of opposition to authoritarian rule, and of the promise of good governance.

The cynicism that characterized citizen attitude towards government during the Estrada administration reached virtually unprecedented heights during the Arroyo regime. But in 2010 that cynicism gave way to hopes that Mr. Aquino, who was widely perceived to be incorruptible because he was his mother’s son, would usher in a new era in politics and governance focused on eliminating corruption, which, it was also hoped, would lead to a decrease in, if not the end of, mass poverty.

Mr. Aquino came to power on a wave of public approval which was evident in the votes he received in May 2010 and in subsequent surveys, which in 2011 found his approval ratings at a high 79 percent. His high ratings have held since, declining at most by nine percent. As expected, the pork barrel scandal has tarred Mr. Aquino despite his administration’s efforts to keep him above it all.

The likely reasons for the decline in his September approval ratings have less to do with the public’s incapacity to distinguish between the corruption in the pork barrel system during the Arroyo regime and his administration than with the sense among the citizenry that Mr. Aquino has not been entirely forthright as far as the abolition of the so-called Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF, or the Congressional pork barrel) is concerned.

Mr. Aquino and his spokespersons were claiming last September that it had been abolished, but had to declare that it had only been suspended when the Supreme Court declared that only Congress could abolish PDAF.

This occurred in the context of perceptions that Mr. Aquino and his congressional allies were planning to merely change the name of the PDAF, and that Mr. Aquino himself was in control of over P1 trillion in discretionary funds. Contributing to public doubts, and leading to suspicions that he and some of his Cabinet cohort have had dealings with her in the past, was his escorting Janet Lim-Napoles to Camp Crame when she surrendered to him, and his Local Government Secretary’s “Ma’am Janet” slip when referring to Napoles.

Mr. Aquino has been criticized for blaming the Arroyo regime for the country’s problems. But he has a point, though barely. Poverty, economic backwardness, and corruption are the putrid legacies of past administrations and not only of Arroyo’s. What Mr. Aquino is increasingly being blamed for is his reluctance to push Congress to dismantle the pork barrel system, and his equally apparent unwillingness to surrender his discretionary funds.

The bad news for Mr. Aquino is that his approval ratings are likely to decline further as one scandal after another continues to rock the government. These scandals–among them his discretionary allocation of funds through the Department of Budget and Management’s cleverly inventive Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) , and the huge bonuses his appointees in such Government Owned and Controlled Corporations as the Social Security System have given themselves–can’t be blamed on the Arroyo administration.

The country’s problems may be the inevitable results of decades of corruption and generally bad governance by a succession of administrations. But one can blame one’s predecessors only so much and only so often. Every administration has as much opportunity to correct the wrongs of the past as it has the chance to add to them.

That was what Mr. Aquino promised in 2010, and that was what the electorate hoped he would do. What the decline in his ratings is saying is that a sizeable number of the citizens of this Republic think that he hasn’t been entirely committed to correcting those admittedly old wrongs– and is probably committing new ones.

(BusinessWorld)

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