The Long View: After the election, the deluge

After the election, the deluge

By Manuel L. Quezon III
First Posted 00:53am (Mla time) 04/16/2007

MANILA, Philippines – “Political machinery” and “command vote” may be slightly less sinister-sounding phrases than “by hook or crook,” but as the minority that constitutes our income-tax-paying population today casts its hard-earned cash into the bottomless money pit that is our national treasury, it would be good to ask: where is all this money going?

It will go, of course, to pay the debts (incurred from the time of the Marcos dictatorship, to the time of Aquino, Ramos and Estrada administrations) and the loans of the present government, which were taken on the gambler’s assumption that the Arroyo administration had to spend like a sailor to get itself elected in 2004, after which it could make a grand production about restoring the fiscal sanity it itself abandoned. The fiscal situation has been restored to health but at the cost of other programs that have stagnated over the past three years.

After the May elections, the administration heads into the homestretch of its term. The President has signaled that she is going to embark on another gamble: pouring money into 21 “priority road and bridge projects” to be completed by 2010 (you can read the itemized list at http://
46). Certainly, her administration can be expected to pursue these programs vigorously, for many reasons: they represent plans dating back, in some cases, to several administrations; they represent the traditional means by which the achievement of presidents are assessed and judged; they represent patronage benefits; and of course, they are genuinely helpful to the economy.

The President has had a headache on her hand, however, in the case of the expressway connecting Subic and Clark. A 383-day extension has been sought by one of the project’s two Japanese contractors due to right-of-way obstructions. This paper recently quoted Rene Romero, chair of the Advocacy for the Development of Central Luzon as saying that, “The whole world is looking [at] how we do major infrastructure projects. If these are not laden with controversies or affected by politics, these are hounded by delays.” He added, “Government should act fast on the SCTEx and send the message: We’re really ready to do business.”

The builders of the expressway reported at least 2,408 days of delay in this 50-km project in Bataan and Pampanga, not only because of right-of-way problems, but also because of the late issuance of the value-added tax payment scheme, late approval of the use of construction materials and quarry controversy at the Roosevelt National Park.

These are problems any administration pushing a similar project would probably face. This and other projects put together are the kind that any administration would find worth pursuing in the national, and its own, interest. In other words, both existing and new projects reflect a desire to leave a tangible mark on both the political and economic landscape, but they also represent a need that is, in many ways, extraordinary. Having survived challenges to its survival, the administration now has to produce results. Its standing before the people and its supporters, particularly outside Metro Manila, is at stake.

What is not at stake in the coming elections are these projects. In many ways, they are immune from politics: even at their most ferocious, opponents of the administration do not make a fuss of infrastructure because it would be political suicide to do so. But this also means that responsibility for the success or failure of these projects firmly lies with the administration.

As it enters its last three years, it will be hard-pressed to complete what’s already delayed and master all the possible delays in order to get the credit for whatever it manages to finish by 2010. The crucial test to the administration’s claim that it provides effective governance comes then at a time when it will be saddled by its lame-duck status. On the other hand, the provinces will be clamoring for payback for the support they gave over the past years, and the administration will have to spend more, without returning to the near-reckless spending leading up to 2004.

If all it had to pay back were old political debts, the administration would most likely carry it off with aplomb by 2010. But it has future debts to incur, compounding the political debts from the past three years, which it has to begin paying back in earnest. The future debts will come from a dilemma the President must face: if she is to be true to her word, that her only interest is in stepping down gracefully, leaving a nation better off than it was when she assumed office, she must deliver on her infrastructure projects.

Alexander Hamilton once observed, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

By what means are the governed to be controlled? And by what means is the government to be obliged to control itself?

The past three years have shown that the governed can be controlled by means of intimidation, and by appealing to their cynicism or fear. But the government has shown little inclination to control itself; instead, it has set out to defang every institution meant to keep it in its best behavior: the Senate, the courts, the streets, the press. But it can never win total victory or achieve total mastery. An opposition Senate will most likely be elected. This leaves salvation in the hands of an administration-controlled House; and leaves wide open the temptation, if the machinery delivers big, to go back to Charter change, as the ultimate payback to the President’s supporters and as the means to keep her from being a lame duck. But it will mean putting the infrastructure projects in peril.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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