Watershed in good governance

MANILA, Philippines — February next year will be a watershed not only in the reformation of our electoral system but also in the battle for transparency and accountability; in short, in good governance. Come Feb. 2, 2008, the chairs of the Commission on Elections, the Commission on Audit, and the Civil Service Commission will be due for replacements. Just as important, the chief of staff (COS) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines will retire on Feb. 9, 2008.

Commissions on Audit and Civil Service. In two previous columns, I stressed the need for transparency and public participation in the selection process for the new Comelec leadership. This time, I am calling for the same degree of transparency and vigilance in the appointment of the new leaders of the COA, CSC and AFP.

Like the Comelec, the COA and the CSC are essential democratic institutions. The Constitution safeguards their integrity and independence by detailing the qualifications of their chairs and members, ensuring their fiscal independence, guaranteeing their tenure, and enumerating their “power, authority and duty” which cannot be usurped, diminished or altered by any entity, not even by the president, the legislature or the judiciary.

An independent and courageous COA chair will assure transparency and accountability in the expenditure and use of government funds and property in all public offices. A vigilant and no-nonsense COA head is indispensable in preventing and exposing graft and corruption. COA reports constitute vital evidence in the prosecution of grafters and plunderers.

On the other hand, a nonpartisan and capable CSC chief will assure the continuation of essential public services, despite the worst machinations of the political leadership. In many countries like the United Kingdom and Japan, the civil service is so entrenched and so dependable that no political leader dares to ignore or defy its recommendations and regulations.

The incumbents, Guillermo N. Carague of the COA and Karina Constantino David of the CSC, have performed their jobs quietly and competently, befitting the dignity and importance of their offices. Their successors should do no less.

Choosing the military’s top gun. Given that authoritarian rule is possible only with the support of a compliant military, the appointment process for the successor of Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who will retire on Feb. 9, 2008, must likewise be conducted with utmost transparency. Openness is even more pressing in this instance because, unlike the heads of the Comelec, the COA and the CSC, the tour of duty of the AFP COS can be extended by President Macapagal-Arroyo.

True, the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. However, the Constitution mandates the AFP to be the “protector of the people,” and not the guarantor of the whims of the chief executive. The choice of a new AFP chief of staff, or in the alternative, the extension of the tour of duty of General Esperon, can signal the purity (or impurity) of GMA’s intentions during her remaining term, and beyond.

Credible officials for constitutional offices. Despite the ad nauseam criticisms hurled at the 1987 “Aquino Constitution,” still and all, at least one bright spot must be conceded: it has preserved enduring institutions, like the Comelec, the COA, and the CSC (as well as the Ombudsman and the Commission on Human Rights), that are calibrated to fulfill the Preamble’s noblest dream to “build a just and humane society” and to secure “the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law?”

To fulfill this dream, what we need are visionary men and women who will lead these sacred institutions. Between now and February 2008 are three months that should be used in assuring that only the best and the brightest, the brave and the untainted are installed in these offices, and in the highest position in our military establishment.

Of course, GMA is the key player in this effort. By agreeing to a transparent appointing process and, thereafter, by naming only the best and the brightest who pass the test of public scrutiny, she would rise above partisan wrangling and pave the way for her democratic legacy.

To accord GMA an unobstructed opportunity to ponder on this heritage, it may be prudent for all those who care—especially those in the media, the Church, the non-government groups, the academe—to grant GMA some breathing space and to critically collaborate with her in this effort to strengthen our democratic institutions through a transparent and participatory process of filling these vital vacancies with men and women of vision, gravitas and integrity.

Last chance at good governance. Who knows, GMA may yet surprise her harshest critics by naming outstanding citizens to lead the Comelec, the COA, the CSC and the AFP come February next year. Thereafter, she would still have enough time—about two and a half more years—to turn the tide of pessimism in her leadership, and to be remembered for a legacy of economic development in the most vibrant democracy in all of Asia.

However, if she fails our people’s expectations during the next three months and makes appointments that are calibrated solely to protect herself and to extend her hold on power, I think she will sink so deeply in self-gratification that even the patient people of goodwill—those of us who now are still willing to give her a last chance at good governance—will lose all hope in her redemption.

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