Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Philippine election all about personality, not policy

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Filipinos elected a new Congress and local governments on May 13 in what President Benigno Aquino called a referendum on his administration, now halfway through its six-year term.

Aquino set out to save the country from its twin curses of corruption and poverty. The election results suggest the voters still think this is a good idea in theory, although they have yet to see what it looks like in practice.

Half the seats in the Senate and all the seats in the House of Representatives were up for grabs. Partial results indicated that the pro-government alliance would dominate both houses, as it dominated the last Congress. A presidential spokesman claimed victory for the government, saying that Filipinos had "spoken overwhelmingly to confirm and expand the mandate for reform and change that they first granted in 2010 to President Aquino."

The principal thrust of Aquino's campaign against corruption is the arrest and prosecution of his predecessor, former President Gloria Arroyo. Arroyo is now on trial for corruption, which she denies. She remains in custody in a hospital while the case proceeds.

The main part of Aquino's campaign against poverty is to continue the program of conditional cash transfers to the poorest Filipinos which Arroyo began.

A confluence of benign conditions has resulted in the Philippine economy being one of the fastest-growing in Asia, with low inflation, low interest rates and GDP growth of 6.6 per cent last year. The proportion of the population living in poverty has remained static, however, at around 28 per cent for the past six years. The government promises inclusive growth, but the opposition says that the growth has been jobless.

Congress has played little part in this limping pursuit of reform and change. Aquino pushed for little legislation from the last Congress, giving up the opportunity to set his reforms in stone.

Congress always supports Philippine presidents, because the president is the main fount of political patronage. Political parties count for little in the Philippines, being channels for campaign funds rather than policy-making institutions. When Aquino's single term ends in 2016, the pro-government alliance probably will dissolve and then coalesce around the next president. Aquino's Liberal Party will go on, but is not bound to accept the policies he bequeaths. Personalities, not parties, decide policy -- as Aquino's own administration shows.

In the elections on May 13, some parties had candidates in both the government and opposition camps. Voters heard little about policy during the campaigning, but heard plenty from personalities whose names they could easily recall on polling day.

The new Congress is full of personalities: those belonging to political dynasties which have held sway for generations, show-business personalities, sports personalities and, of course, relatives of personalities. The senatorial candidate who early results indicated would end up winning the most votes was Grace Poe, daughter of the late Fernando Poe, an actor and sometime presidential candidate. Poe is an independent who has no political experience, but she was backed by both the pro-government alliance and the opposition alliance.

If Aquino's fellow-politicians appear inconstant, so do Filipino voters. They returned Arroyo to Congress, even though she is locked up. They made Joseph Estrada -- another former president and also a former film star -- mayor of Manila, even though a court once sent him to prison for life for corruption. And they also elected Imelda Marcos to Congress, even though she is the widow of the most corrupt president of all, Ferdinand Marcos.

The durability of any reforms built on such wobbly political foundations is questionable.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 A17

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