For or against Arroyo

MANILA, Philippines — My Aug. 12 column, titled “GMA’s legacy,” continues to draw reactions. One was quite pointed, even sarcastic, “After the Supreme Court—under your leadership last year—dealt successive blows to GMA [Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo], how can you say that, as a Filipino, you still “want the President to succeed and foster democracy and development; freedom and food; nay, liberty and prosperity for all.” I thought all along that you have joined us in the anti-GMA movement.”

For or against actions, not persons. I write for or against causes, actions and principles, not pro or contra persons and personalities. As a retired jurist, I am used to deciding in favor of or against petitions or complaints, not pro or contra the parties in the controversy. I am interested in what wins, not in who wins. I impugn the crime, but I do not detest the criminal. As Christian theology goes, we hate sin but not the sinner. And we do not just criticize; we also help find solutions.

My said column stated that it is difficult to fault the President’s aspirations for an infrastructure-laden legacy. However, I also cautioned that while it is good to aspire for the many things that money can buy—like roads, bridges, airports, and school houses—it is better to have, first and foremost, the things that money cannot buy, like integrity, public esteem, character, moral ascendancy and credibility. Without credibility, no leader can succeed. And visionary leadership by example is the best way to lead and to gain credibility.

GMA’s worst failing. I think that GMA’s worst failing is in transparent and accountable governance, resulting in her massive loss of credibility. For too long, her trust rating has been miserably low. According to the most recent SWS survey, issued on Sept. 24, it is now a dismal minus 11. Our people have a deep-seated impression of widespread graft in her government. Worse, she is not doing enough to abate, or even minimize it. In fact, the Philippines had fallen from 121st to 131st place, out of 180 countries in the corruption rating of the Berlin-based Transparency International (Inquirer, 9/27/07).

To regain her credibility, I have suggested that she (1) direct all her close relatives, officials and cronies to “follow strictly the Constitution, anti-graft law, ethical standards law, public bidding laws and similar codes;” and (2) fortify “our democratic institutions by naming trustworthy officials, especially to the Supreme Court and the Commission on Elections.” I added, “With prudent legal advice, goals can be attained under the rule of law.”

The rebounding economy. On the other hand, the most bright-lined area of her governance is the improved economy. Though not an economist, I can feel the effects of economic indicators. The budget deficit has been arrested, thus reducing foreign borrowing; the interest and inflation rates are at an all-time low, enabling consumers to stretch their buying power especially in durables like homes and condos; the peso has risen in value, enhancing the people’s ability to enjoy their income.

Many say that the economy is propelled by the sweat of the overseas Filipino workers, not by the genius of GMA. They argue that the OFWs who remitted a hefty $14 billion last year—double that sent five years ago—are the real heroes. Of that, there is no doubt.

But GMA’s Herculean effort in pushing for the expanded Value Added Tax (EVAT), the privatization program especially of the power sector, foreign investments in large-scale mining, the major rise in tourism arrivals, and the resurgent stock market cannot be brushed aside. New investments mean more jobs, more production and more income.

Certainly, the OFW remittances are a major reason for our economic upturn, measured at a record 7.5 percent annual rate in the second quarter this year. But GMA deserves equal credit (or discredit?). In fact, consumers are still pillorying her for the higher EVAT they pay, especially for oil products that used to be VAT-exempt. Indeed, the defeat in the last senatorial election of GMA’s candidates, like Ralph Recto and Mike Defensor, has been attributed invariably to the perceived evils of EVAT.

Her critics further lament that the rebounding economy is a myth, a statistical hocus-pocus, because the poor do not feel its effects. Maybe so, but we must begin with the first of a thousand steps. The resurgence of Korea, Singapore, and now of China needed several years of spectacular growth before the benefits reached the masses.

Credibility, first and foremost. Which brings me back to GMA’s basic problem of low credibility. A cancer patient who trusts a physician will not resent the debilitation of chemotherapy. Similarly, a people who have confidence in their leader will willingly suffer transitory torment, in exchange for the eventual healing of their malady.

In contrast, the leader who is not trusted will be mocked not only for the real economic malaise but also for the temporary pain caused incidentally by the remedy. The applause of the world media (Wall Street Journal, Clinton Global Initiative, etc.) confirms GMA’s work to the converted, but not to the non-trusting locals who remember only the agony of her reign.

That was what happened in India. The leaders who prescribed the painful medicine were booted out of power, and the politicians who opposed them were voted in to revel in the prosperity started by the hated reformers. The moral lesson: aspire for credibility, first and foremost.

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