First steps

By Dean dela Paz

Following its long half-a-century sleep, during the first week of the administration, it was only natural that rebirth pains characterized its first steps. These are important. They determine direction. The Philippines is watching. So is the rest of the planet.

During the campaign, platforms were hardly offered for scrutiny save for the cryptic objective of a comeback and a constant reference to “unity”. That made sense. Forget the complex challenges of an elective office. Filipino voters do not elect on the basis of platforms or legislative agenda.

In place of platforms, offering up homegrown recipes of a slab of crackling pork and a repetitive all-encompassing soundbite sufficed.

For the legislature, the Senate in particular, a positive persona is enough. Never mind that it might be light years from the task of lawmaking. In the alchemy of the electorate’s value system, a background in entertainment provided more potent foundations for public service.

In the 1970s, when a variety radio program host entered politics and was eventually conferred the title of “Honorable Senator,” the entire paradigm of lawmaking shifted. And it has been that way since.

Instead of a well thought-out platform, strategy, and roadmap to veer away from the current, gnawing and debilitating economic crises, most of the reassurances from the Executive branch centered on appointing a smattering of credible tokens to the cornucopia of scions of former loyal officials, political allies, regurgitated factotums, and campaign benefactors.

To be fair, it would be premature to demand depth during the first week of a honeymoon.

At least one appointee seemed to be addressing the crisis. Albeit with essentially yakity-yak, there was an attempt to talk down the astronomical inflation rate, our increasing debt and the serial weakening of the peso. For the teeming toiling majority, forthcoming substance, if any, would have to wait until the State of the Nation Address (SONA) is delivered and marching orders rolled out to the new legislature.

In the early days of the Corazon Aquino presidency, as it confronted the immense challenges of restoring our damaged democracy amid surviving an inherited plundered economy, a process of deliberative consultations among stakeholders had become essential prior to her SONA.

She did not yet have a Legislative-Executive Advisory Council at the time. But Aquino was blessed with a solid team of competent appointees and congressional leaders likewise as patriotic as she was.

While, admittedly, Aquino was hardly prepared for the presidency given the Herculean challenge of transitioning from authoritarianism, a woman of unquestionable principle, she had that ability to attract good men and women for all three branches of government. It was hardly surprising that the resultant chemistry among multidimensional institutions gelled based on a principled leadership paradigm whose overriding focus was the public welfare. Indeed, Aquino’s moral compass was the touchstone.

All past is prelude. In our case, it was a dark mirror. Fast forward to today, the crises are again political and economic, predicated on a previous administration and the persistent value system of the majority that dictates what are to be prioritized.

Simply list the topmost imperatives confronting us.

High inflation now at 6.10%. Crashing peso values that effectively increase foreign indebtedness. Total outstanding debt heading north of P12.76 trillion. Increasing unemployment from negative 0.38% under Benigno Aquino III to a historical 6% in May 2022, somewhere in the same neighborhood as Kenya’s. Resurgent daily spikes in COVID-19 cases. Food shortages.

Cognizant there may be more responsive agenda farther down a to-do list, array against these compelling imperatives the quality of the jetsam and flotsam first floated and bannered in media.

First, accredit bloggers. Then Executive Order no. 1 abolishing a presidential anti-graft agency. In both houses of Congress, concerted priorities to rename an airport, reimpose the death penalty, change the medium of instruction and legalize divorce.

Reflecting the values of the majority as policy priorities, discern where these first steps are headed.

(Dean dela Paz is a former investment banker and a managing director of a New Jersey-based power company operating in the Philippines. He is the chairman of the board of a renewable energy company and is a retired Business Policy, Finance and Mathematics professor.)