In Baguio, where I spent the holidays, I noticed something different about the Mansion House, the presidential residence there. In previous years, the President’s setting up camp was accompanied by little more than sycophantic banners in the Country Club and the obvious presence of officials in the city. This year, the President seems to have taken a large chunk of the armed forces with her.
For all I know, the same number of troops accompanied her in the past, but they were quite obvious this time around, particularly at the back of the Mansion House property, where APC’s lurked behind the trees and the roadside featured clusters of soldiers in full battle gear posted at regular intervals, complete with tents. Baguio during the holidays is a pretty laid back place, but there was nothing laid back about these security precautions.
I had three conversations during the holidays worth reporting here. The first was a very brief one with an acquaintance who works for a computer college. I asked how enrollments were. He replied last year (2006) they’d bucked the trend, and had maintained an increase. What trend, I asked. He said that every election year marked the beginning of a cycle, with increased enrollments, which would then begin to peter off midway and end the cycle with decreased enrollments until the next election year, when enrollments would again increase. I asked him why this was so, and he bluntly replied that politicians would hand out scholarships come election time, but that funding peters out as the next election cycle begins.
Another conversation was with an entrepreneur I respect highly. I asked him what he thought about economic prospects for 2007. In broad strokes, he said it would be six months of plenty followed by six months of wait-and-see for businessmen. An election year always results in lavish spending, he pointed out, which puts money in everyone’s pockets, but after the elections in May, there would be a corresponding belt-tightening all around. The way Thailand has “imploded,” in economic and security terms, as he put it, would divert some foreign money to the Philippines and lead to some opportunities in the first half of the year (the stock market, the Peso, etc.), and consumer-based companies would do well since lots of money will be handed out by the politicians.
The problem will come after May, he said. We have to see to what extent the government is willing to throw caution to the winds in order to win enough seats in the House and Senate to keep control of Congress. He was, for example, unhappy with news that Finance Secretary Teves will relinquish his cabinet portfolio and run for the Senate, since he’s doing a good job (in the view of the entrepreneur, Teves is a much-needed antidote to individuals like Andaya). So the coming resignations from the cabinet will reveal just how intent the President is on playing politics to the detriment of the economy. Next will come the fallout from the elections: if credible, then things just might improve; if lacking credibility, then obviously, political uncertainty will haunt the economy. Also, if the opposition does well, an impeachment, he said, will be assumed by businessmen who will then wait and see what the results of that exercise will be. The only thing that will keep things from deteriorating quickly, he pointed out, is that the last half of the year also brings in remittances from overseas, which might cancel out the effects of local mismanagement of the economy or political uncertainty.
The third conversation was with a senior advertising executive who belongs to the group I like to call the perennially-frustrated supporters of the President. That is, he thinks the President has what it takes to lead the country, but wonders why the President keeps screwing up. He believes, for all her defects, that she remains the only one qualified to lead at present and who has the courage to defend her position against all comers, though he’s very frustrated over her waffling at every point that she begins to enjoy the upper hand (thus losing it, and keeping the political situation in limbo). To his mind, if the President did two things, first, deliver on infrastructure, and second, actually do something tangible for OFW families (instead of glad-hand them during the holidays, which he sniffed insulted everyone’s intelligence) then the public, which would never cease grumbling, would at least grudgingly admire her.
He gave as examples exercising political will -even flouting the law, if necessary- to open NAIA3, which he says is a perennial reminder to Filipinos and foreigners alike how incompetent government can be, or finally doing something with the planned railways. He advocates some sort of grand pronouncement to set up an OFW bank or establish scholarships for the children of OFWs as something that would have a positive impact on public perception (the entrepreneur I talked to also mentioned the need to exercise political will to put a stop to the growth of bureaucracies like the POEA, with its tendency to exact useless fees and the corruption-laden monopolies its establishes for deployment contracts).
He found Charter Change a complete waste of time and ultimately, harmful to the president (needless to say we vigorously debated her motivations for this and other pet projects of the administration). Since it’s his business as an advertising man to get the public pulse, he says the only way to pitch it is to chop up the issue into discrete parts, but each segment that it’s pitched to would ask, “what’s in it for me?” And there’s precious little in it, however you spin it, he said, that offers anything beneficial to anyone who is not a professional politician.
What I found most interesting though, were his observations about neighboring cultures. He said he was amused by the “rantings” of his fellow citizens about our politics, considering how much more advanced we are in both appreciating and practicing democracy; that our defects are not unique but part and parcel of our being Asians: dynasties, celebrity-addiction, name-recall, he said, are all characteristics of Asian culture. The Congress Party in India, he pointed out, is nothing without the Gandhis; Pakistan was Bhutto country for a time; before Arroyo there was Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of a president, and Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia are filled with dynastic politicians who are intimately connected with big business. The saving grace of the Filipino, for all our national defects, he said, is that we firmly adhere to periodic elections which offer up the chance of a change in policy without the need for a coup or a bloodbath: and when when we find that option frustrated, that is the only time we begin to to toy around with more extreme methods for regime change.
Now unless you want to entrust the future to astrologers, this new year’s prospects entirely depends on what we will make of it (although, having started out the New Year with a cold, and with the irritating slowdown in the Internet showing no signs of going away, I can say that the early signs aren’t too peach keen). It begins, as Big Mango set out to do, with asking questions (the entrepreneur also said the time has come to challenge some fundamental assumptions about policy, including land reform; and for that reason, Rational Choice‘s entry on Negros Occidental sugar lands is very interesting). It also begins, I’d like to propose, with stating your assumptions so that they can be examined and challenged by others, which is what I’ve tried to do with my first column for the year, Palace none the wiser.
Overseas, the first entry of the year by History Unfolding provides much food for thought:
The Iraqis have shown they are fiercely nationalistic and I don’t see why the Sunni insurgent leaders would want an alien state within their state. Al Queda, meanwhile, has apparently established a new nuclear-protected safe haven in Pakistan anyway. But Al Queda, although capable of terrorist acts against the US, was never the major issue in this war. The war was designed spectacularly to reverse the decline of American influence in the Middle East–and instead, as I have pointed out, spectacularly accelerated it. The region desperately needs a halt to the Shi’ite-Sunni fighting before it spreads. The only way Americans could help bring that about is to advocate peaceful partition of Iraq. Meanwhile, a real political and constitutional crisis looms in the United States, as the President prepares entirely to disregard the opinions the voters expressed in the last election.