Some Filipinos complain that the State of the Nation Address or SONA has become too politicized, but not just in one, but in two senses has it always been political.
Delivering the SONA is a duty required of the President by the Constitution, and it’s been a yearly ritual since 1935 with but a few exceptions because of war and political upheavals. What it’s basically and obviously all about is a report on how political power has been used in the years immediately preceding until the present, and that hopefully it was used for the country’s benefit. It also includes the Chief Executive’s legislative proposals for the succeeding year, which he wants Congress—the Senate and the House—to implement through the passage of appropriate Acts—thus the interest, over the last five years, in whether Aquino III would make certain bills such as that on freedom of Information, a priority.
But the SONA is also political in that the person delivering it—whether Manuel Quezon in 1935, Marcos in 1970, or Aquino III in 2015—does so in the expectation of public and cohort approval. The SONA as a report to the people is also a political appeal for continuing support, whether through the polls, or, as in the case of Marcos during the martial law period—in the initial years of which he delivered it, not before Congress (he had shut it down), but in Malacanang before the controlled press and his own officials—through public acquiescence to his rule.
Since the restoration of Congress, elections and other allegedly democratic institutions in 1986 when the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown, the President’s final SONA has also been political in the sense that politics is most commonly understood in this country: as partisanship and as the prelude to the contest for the Presidency in the following year.
Corazon Aquino delivered her last SONA in the context of fears (and among her partisans, hopes) that she would somehow, and despite the Constitutional ban, seek the Presidency again. Fidel Ramos’ own fifth SONA was delivered in the middle of his partisans’ failed campaign to amend the Constitution so he could run for another term. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s own Address was delivered in the midst of speculations that despite her nearly decade-long occupancy of Malacanang, she would still extend her controversial watch. Term extension has been a constant source of speculation and apprehension since the Constitution limited Presidential terms to one six- year period without re-election.
Aquino III’s fifth SONA was an exception. It was delivered in the context of widespread assumptions that extending his term or amending the Constitution so he could run for a second six- year term wasn’t in his mind—or that, if it ever was, he has abandoned that thought, which only last year was the subject of speculation when Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II told media that Aquino’s ideal successor and the country’s best hope was no one else but Aquino himself.
Aquino III has since declared Roxas his preferred successor, thus putting an end this year to the persistent rumors of Presidents’ succeeding themselves since the 1987 Constitution went into effect. But Aquino ‘s last SONA has become much more of a political issue than during the final year of his mother’s term or of Ramos’, a full seven months before the campaign season for the 2016 elections.
Despite the boring predictability of Philippine elections in other respects, the politicization of the SONA is this time due to the unique characteristics of the political landscape in the run-up to 2016. The first of these is the Binay factor. Jejomar Binay was an Aquino ally for nearly five years, resigning his Cabinet posts only when Aquino refused to endorse his candidacy for President. Although his criticism of the administration through, most recently, his “true SONA,” could be labelled as a form of sourgraping, the fact that he was once part of what he’s criticizing could resonate among the electorate as proof that he knows what he’s talking about.
Binay focused on those issues with which most Filipinos are familiar, such as corruption and the continuing lack of employment opportunities, the botched Mamasapano operation that cost 58 lives, and the intolerable inefficiency of the metro rail system, thus giving expression to public frustration and anger. (Significantly missing, however, was any reference to the continuing violations of human rights that Aquino III also avoided.)
But it is the context in which Binay has apparently launched his campaign that could provoke responses from the administration and the Liberal Party beyond such declarations as that he was once applauding what he’s criticizing. Grace Poe, the electorate’s most preferred candidate for President, is showing signs of hesitation in running for that post and is apparently open to running for Vice President under the LP. That eventuality would make Binay the front runner, inviting the possibility of a Binay-Poe victory in 2016.
What’s in all this for the citizenry? As a basically political address disguised as a report to the nation, a SONA that paints a picture prettier than what most Filipinos are familiar with is hardly something the average citizen would take to heart—or even listen to. That’s in addition to skepticism over the unremittingly positive statistics Aquino trotted out, given the notoriously unreliable record-keeping of many government agencies, and even the deliberate fudging of the numbers to support the preferred conclusions.
This is not necessarily unique to Aquino: all administrations have painted pictures of the national situation as rosy as Aquino’s, for the quite simple reason that, despite a President’s serving only a single six year term, his allies and partners in politics do have a stake in their principal’s being perceived as efficient and honest. In the end it’s not what the statistics supposedly say that matters, but what the men and women of this country know, feel and experience in their daily lives. Which SONA they will believe—and who they will vote for in 2016—will be decided by their perception of who they think has addressed their concerns, or who will best be able to do so.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Gov.ph