Change or Continuity in the Philippines?

By David Wurfel. In Current History (December 1992).

The May 1992 election was not a turning point in Philippine politics. That it was held, on schedule, that it was relatively free and honest, and that, despite a narrow victory in a multicandidate race, constitutional procedures were followed right down to the installation of Fidel Ramos-all this served to strengthen rather than weaken Philippine democracy. But there was so much dissatisfaction with the process — the great number of candidates, the confusion of simultaneous national and local elections, the lack of attention to issues, and the massive expenditures, including vote buying — that the events of May and June hardly constituted the conclusive “consolidation of democracy” that so many participants and analysts had been looking for. That consolidation now depends on the way in which President Ramos uses his power and how effectively he deals with the Philippines’ many economic, social, and political problems.

How Different Are They?

There are vast differences in the way Corazon Aquino, the previous president, and Fidel Ramos gained office. Cory Aquino was denied election in 1986 by fraud orchestrated by backers of President Ferdinand Marcos, despite being the more popular figure. She gained the presidency only as a result of a rebellion by a portion of the military, backed by “people power” demonstrations. The United States supported Marcos until nearly the very end, so Aquino felt in no way beholden to the White House, even though the American media and elements in the Congress in Washington strongly supported her. During the first months of her administration relations with Washington were cool; only much later did sheendorse a new treaty on United States military bases in the Philippines, and then not effectively.

Curiously, Ramos, a West Point graduate and former commander of the Philippine Constabulary, chief of staff of the armed forces, and secretary of defense, owes less to the military than Aquino did. Precincts in or near military camps reported large blocs of votes in the May election for Judge Miriam Defensor-Santiago, or for Aquino’s estranged cousin, “Danding” Cojuangco, but not for General Ramos-though Ramos does have a coterie of military supporters. Ramos was backed strongly by the anti-Marcos segment of the business communi¬£}’, by numerous members of the Philippine Congress, and by key elements of the Aquino administration. He was also cautiously and discreetly supported by the United States. But perhaps most important were the “campaign” swings around the country that he had been making for tWo or three years in which he established personal ties with local political leaders.

Though Ramos ultimately received a vigorous endorsement from Aquino, it almost did not happen. Ramos had declared his candidacy before the December 1991 nominating convention of the LDP (Lakas ng Demokratikong Pilipino, or “Strength of Philippine Democracy”), the largest political party, which backed the Aquino administration and whose secretary general was Congressman “Peping” Cojuangco, the president’s brother. But during the convention Aquino hardly lifted a finger for Ramos, while her brother maneuvered, successfully, to nominate Speaker of the House Ramon Mitra. At first Ramos seemed resigned to exclusion from the race and said he would support the LDP ticket. But later, perhaps having received signals from the presidential palace, he charged that he had been cheated of the nomination and would form his own political party.

Not until late January did Aquino give her endorsement to his independent candidacy. She clearly had no faith in either the honesty or the electability of Speaker Mitra. Her disgust with the corrupt behavior of her brother, which she had been unable to control, may also have been revealed in this split from the LDP. But it is certain that Ramos relied more on his own network of alliances than on Aquino’s help.

Alliance building to achieve power was important after election day as well as before. When the congressional canvass of the votes began in late May, both Santiago and onetime Marcos crony “Danding” Cojuangco claimed they led the polls, and no one denied it was a close race. Unlike Santiago, however, Cojuangco had a sizable block of supporters in Congress, and in the early days of the canvass they charged fraud and attempted to slow the pace of the process.

The consequences of delay could have been disastrous. If congressional canvassing had not been completed by June 30, the Philippines would have been without a president or a legally established procedure for choosing one-a power vacuum into which the military would have been likely to intrude. There are questions about what the real potential was for delay by Cojuangco’s faction, but developments in the newly elected Congress in July imply that some deal was struck betWeen Cojuangco’s Nationalist People’s Coalition and the Ramos forces. The NPC supported the Ramos-backed candidates for House speaker and Senate president, despite Aquino’s urging that Ramos seek an alliance with the LDP. Cojuangco would expect in return to see his economic interests protected by the new administration.

Aquino’s and Ramos’s methods of achieving power were sufficiently different that his pledge to carry on the work she had begun and her backing of his candidacy are not in themselves sufficient basis for forecasting continuity of policy. Neither can such continuity be predicated on similarity of background and experience (although both Ramos and Aquino received bachelor’s degrees in the United States, he at West Point and she at a Catholic womens college). And though both have been characterized as having a cautious, even vacillating, decision-making style, there are other important differences.

Aquino was born into one of the wealthiest ChineseFilipino families, once the largest owner of the country’s rice-producing lands, in addition to holding a large sugar plantation in Tarlac and a family bank. Despite her personal modesty and graciousness she had little opportunity to learn to understand the plight of the vast majority of Filipinos. Ramos’s background could best be described as upper-middle class. His father, Narciso, was a lawyer and journalist who mvned some land in Pangasinan province. First elected to the national legislature in the early 1930s, Narciso Ramos was for a time after World War II ambassador to Taipei (marking the beginning of the family’s close links with Taiwanese interests). In 1966 he became Marcos’s first secretary of foreign affairs. Fidel Ramos, in choosing a military career, lived and worked within an institution whose officer corps was mostly from the middle or the lower-middle class, which helped color his perceptions of reality. He was brought up a Protestant, while Aquino came from a strict Roman Catholic family.

The elements within the elite with whom Aquino and Ramos have most often associated have not been that different, however. Aquino’s close ties with business leaders seem quite natural. given her family background; they were reinforced in 1985 when she became the head of the forces attempting to end the Marcos stranglehold on the economy. Ramos was also courted at that time by the anti-Marcos business elite, who saw him as someone who could bring stability to the country. With the growing fear early this year that “Danding” Cojuangco might win the presidential election, and afterward restore “crony capitalism,” those same businesspeople again turned to Ramos. Both Aquino and Ramos have had especially strong ties with the Chinese segment of the business elite. The only clear differences in their patterns of association have been Aquino’s close links to Jaime Cardinal Sin and the Catholic hierarchy and Ramos’s friends among retired generals.

The relations of the tWo presidents with those on the left of the Philippine political spectrum have not been all that different either, though superficially the contrast might seem sharp. As commander of the military effort to crush a Communist-led insurgency, Ramos’s knowledge of the left was based on information provided by military intelligence that was sometimes inaccurate or exaggerated. He was often seen as the enemy not only by insurgents but also by human rights advocates.

Aquino, however, associated with leftists in the opposition, indirectly through her husband, Benigno, and more directly in the mid-1980s, when her own coalition included people from the non-Communist left; she even appointed as her executive secretary a human rights lawyer who had sometimes defended insurgents. These contacts apparently had little impact on her; in 1987 she quickly imbibed the military’s view of the left and based policy on it, ridding her administration of those with a leftist tinge.

Even the moderate reformists, mostly connected with the Catholic Church, who made up the bulk of the “people power” movement in 1986 did not remain influential among those with access to Aquino. Middleof-the-road nongovernment organizations were by the late 1980s more often Aquino’s critics than her advisers, and left-of-center reformist groups had little contact with her. Last year the press reported that Ramos was in the process of establishing links with certain nongovernment organizations, but for the most part these were either business-funded or the fronts for local politicians, set up to receive national government funds.

In examining personal background and patterns of support and association, as well as methods of gaining power, it is possible to find hints of both change and continuity that could be expected from a Ramos administration. The factors most frequently publicized have pointed toward Ramos continuing Aquino’s policies, but this is not the whole story.

Perhaps the most obvious place to look for a shift is in population policy. Cardinal Sin was during Aquino’s tenure a frequent visitor to Malacanang Palace, and a close confidant of the president. His opposition to artificial methods of birth control was well known, and he personally persuaded Aquino to abandon much of the population planning program begun under Marcos, which had been registering some success. Ramos, who is a Protestant, kept a statue of the Virgin Mary on his desk when he was defense secretary, and he recently reassured the Catholic Church that he would “respect its views” on contraception. But he went on to say, “It is the government’s obligation to provide the best possible information to our married couples, who must make the basic decision of how many children they want. We are committed to reduce the rate of population growth in this country.” One has reason to expect renewed activity in government birth control clinics.

Democracy, Human Rights, And The Insurgency

The central issues for the Ramos administration, however, are the same as they were for its predecessor: democratic stability and the closely related issue of economic growth. Whatever her faults, Aquino reestablished constitutional government in the Philippines in 1986-1987. Her dictatorial powers under the “Freedom Constitution” she proclaimed were used sparingly; the Constitutional Commission she appointed devised a new draft, which was ratified by plebiscite in February 1987. The form of government established was largely a restoration of the one in place before the declaration of martial law in 1972, which had been modeled substantially on that of the United States. The distribution of powers among the three branches of government perhaps gave the Philippine president greater power than the American chief executivethough Aquino often failed to use it-and the system was unitary rather than federal. However, the greatest divergence from the American model derived not from the constitution itself but from the social structure and culture that determine the way in which institutions function in the Philippines.

The restoration of free elections and a strongly worded bill of rights did not create a fully democratic system in the Philippines. Elections again became contests between elite groups that sought support mainly by distributing money and favors through extensive patron-client networks. The 1987 Congress was composed mostly of Marcos-era incumbents (about one-fifth of the membership) and scions of wealthy families that had held power in their districts for decades, or even generations. The wide array of groups and classes that had helped topple Marcos were hardly represented. The best indication of the economic interests of the legislators was their emasculation of the broadly supported land reform proposed in 1987.

A democratic system should protect human rights as well as promote effective representation of public interests. Aquino, whose husband had been imprisoned, then assassinated, by the martial law regime, began with a strong commitment to human rights. She restored the writ of habeus corpus, created a Presidential Committee on Human Rights headed by the courageous and forceful ex-Senator Jose Diokno, and announced the release of all political prisoners, including Communist party leaders. The committee also began to prepare indictments of some of the military’s notorious torturers.

However, as early as 1987 there was evidence of a sharp rise in the country in imprisonment without trial, disappearances, torture, and “salvagings” (unauthorized killings-including among their victims human rights lawyers — by the military and their allies). After 1988 the disappearances and “salvagings” began to decline, but in the first six months of 1991 there were still more than 25 reported in both categories, with more than 600 political prisoners remaining in detention-about the same as at the beginning of Aquino’s term. Hardly any officers were convicted for Marcos-era violations and none was imprisoned; many were promoted. Why, in spite of Aquino’s apparently sincere beginning, did this attack on human life and liberty continue? Defense of the existing social structure and pattern of institutional power against a determined challenge served — at least for the ruling elite-to justify the continuing violations.

Profound socioeconomic inequality in rural areas, exacerbated by a history of military abuses, had triggered an insurgency under the leadership of the Communist Party of the Philippines. By 1985 this had reached unprecedented proportions: the New People’s Army (NPA), nearly 20,000 strong, was the largest Marxist guerrilla force in Asia. Though severely set back by the overthrow of Marcos by a gentler leader and the restoration of relatively free elections with some leftist participation — not to mention the impact on morale of an extended cease-fire negotiated with Aquino’s representatives-the insurgency persisted into the late 1980s, providing the Aquino administration with a rationale for maintaining a large military.

The armed forces’ political ambitions had been stirred by Marcos, especially by the manner of his overthrow. As military factions began to mount coup attempts, Aquino found the armed forces more and more difficult to discipline, and decided to appease them instead. When the cease-fire with the NPA ended in February 1987 she endorsed a “total approach” to insurgency that resembled total war.

Private anti-Communist vigilante groups (including those formed by religious fanatics, and private armies organized by wealthy landowners) were at first embraced, and then, when their brutality against anyone even suspected of being an NPA sympathizer was publicized, ineffectually regulated by the administration. Local militias loosely attached to the military, which had been a major source of human rights violations under Marcos, were abolished by the 1987 constitution, but Aquino, under pressure from General Ramos, quickly re-created them under another name. By the late 1980s, violations by the military and its various allies were given fresh excuses by undisciplined attacks on civilians and by the waning, and frustrated, insurgency; violence against innocent civilians by one side was cited as a justification of similar violence by the other. The administration had largely lost control of events in the countryside. Only an entirely new approach to ending the insurgency could improve the situation.

Given his military background, many were surprised that Ramos tried a new tack. This was conceived of not so much as a way to protect human rights as a means of ensuring political stability, the foundation for economic growth. Ramos has recently offered amnesty for political crimes both to military rebels, some of whose leaders are still at large, and to Communist-led insurgents. At the same time he has promised to legalize the Communist party. (Both these proposals must receive Congressional approval.) But Communist leaders are unwilling to lay down their arms and renounce violence in order to receive amnesty, unless they can also attach political conditions. Furthermore, amnesty for “political crimes” is of little value if those accused of these offenses have also been charged with criminal ones. The Philippine army continues to launch attacks on the guerrillas, but this does not prevent informal consultations between the government and leaders of the insurgencies.

Greatly in the government’s favor are the deep splits in the revolutionary movement on how to react to peace overtures. Communist party leaders in exile in the Netherlands seem to have taken the hardest line, making demands that would certainly frustrate any peaceful settlement. Yet the Ramos administration has been able to persuade two prominent former members of the National Democratic Front, the party’s political arm, to act as advisers to the government team. Within the left, there are several other positions. Some are wary of the Ramos initiative, fearing it is only a ploy to create a deadlock that will be used to justify even more vigorous military action. Others believe there are at least some in government who are sincerely interested in ending the fighting and that every effort should be made to find a compromise solution. Whatever discussions have taken place with military rebels or with the Muslim Moro National Liberation Front on Mindanao and Sulu have received much less press attention.

If Ramos could extract from each of these sets of negotiations a lasting agreement, he would indeed be in a much better position to pursue economic development. The major question is whether the values, past practices, and prejudices of Ramos the general will prevail, or whether his new role as a president who plans for the future and is freer of the constraint of factional maneuvering within the military than his predecessor was will determine the outcome. Ramos certainly benefits from the fact that the three rebel forces are weaker than when last they had serious discussions with the government.

Corruption As Cancer

Amnesties, cease-fires, and peace agreements with the rebels, sought but never achieved by Aquino, may still not be sufficient to secure political stability. Corruption is also a cancer that can undermine a government. Corruption-state officials putting private profit ahead of the public good, in violation of laws and regulations — was not new in the Philippines in the 1970s, but it became more deeply embedded in the culture and in the conduct of business and government during the Marcos era. What was acceptable expanded, and the options for a truly honest bureaucrat were narrowed.

Aquino’s personal reputation was pure as the driven snow, and she came to office apparently determined to bring Marcos and his cronies to justice and pledged to uphold high standards of honesty for her own administration. Unfortunately she achieved neither goal. Initially she made high-quality appointments to the Philippine Commission on Good Government, which was assigned to recover the wealth that President Marcos and his cronies had stolen, and much was accomplished in its first year, but by 1988 the commission was headed by the attorney of Aquino’s brother in Congress, “Peping” Cojuangco, one of the most corrupt figures in her administration. Aquino was a woman of traditional values; she was loyal to her family, and she proved not to be strong enough to control them. In fact, she sometimes protected them against corruption charges. When the behavior of her relatives became widely known, the standard of probity in the administration declined generally. The magnitude of the corruption was probably nowhere near what it had been under Marcos, and unlike before 1986, it was somewhat decentralized. But it was sufficiently obvious to contribute to the decline in popular support for Aquino during her last few years in office.

Ramos did not approach the presidency with a record as clean as Aquino’s. The most serious charge against him-which he has never attempted to rebut-is that the Philippine Constabulary was the most corrupt branch of the armed forces during his years as commander of the constabulary. And the man President Ramos backed for speaker of the House, Representative Jose de Venecia, has recently been linked to some of the most corrupt elements remaining in the military. Another member of congress, accused by environmental groups of being involved in illegal logging, has been named by Ramos as his executive secretary, a powerful post sometimes accorded the title “assistant president.” The Ramos administration is thus in grave danger of allowing a level of corruption that will threaten its legitimacy, put weapons in the hands of its enemies, and jeopardize effective economic management.

This would be particularly unfortunate in view of the high degree of confidence that business leaders have shown in the Ramos presidency. Ramos has reciprocated, appointing business leaders to his cabinet; for instance, his secretary of foreign affairs, Roberto Romulo, is former chairman of IBM Philippines and his new finance secretary. Ramon del Rosario, is chairman of Asia Bank.

The economy, which contracted in 1991 — for the first time in the Aquino presidency — grew 0.5 percent in the first quarter of this year. Partly because of this, and perhaps also in anticipation of a peaceful election producing a new era of stability, foreign equity investment in the first quarter of the year was up 19 percent over 1991. Ramos thus took office in a rising economic tide.

The Aquino presidency had also started out well economically, moving the country quickly to rapid growth from the sharp recession of 1985. This was in part because considerable wealth since 1983 had either left the country or gone into hiding; in 1986 it began to be spent and invested. The flow of foreign aid and credit to a regime so highly regarded in the banking centers of the West was also a great boost. But adherence to trade and investment liberalization was not as complete as paper agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would seem to indicate.

And above all, the investment climate was hurt by repeated coup attempts. The kidnapping and holding for five months of a senior Japanese business executive in 1986 put a particular damper on Japanese investment just at a time when, because of the yen revaluation,Japanese funds were surging into other Southeast Asian countries.

Thus with further deceleration caused by a worldwide recession, the Philippine economy had begun to shrink by 1991. And despite refinancing agreements intended to reduce the repayment burden of the massive foreign debt, that debt actually increased from $26 billion to $30 billion between 1986 and 1991. Congress-motivated by the fact that 39 percent of the national budget went to payments of interest and principal, which contributed to a net outflow of capital-tried to put a cap on Philippine debt servicing, but Aquino blocked it. Her advisers feared a ceiling-IS percent of exports of goods and services, for instance-would cause the Philippines’ foreign credit sources to dry up. In fact, among major third world debtors, the Philippines was one of the most compliant with IMF and World Bank policy.

Business optimism about a Ramos presidency is indeed predicated largely on an expectation of political stability. But it will take more than political stability and friendship with businesspeople to promote economic growth. If one assumes that IMF and World Bank policies are appropriate, then the Ramos commitment to continue cooperation with them will be helpful. Such a stance has already won another debt rescheduling. But if the net capital outflow of more than $2 billion a year continues, primarily because of debt servicing, a new approach may be needed. A struggle between president and Congress over a debt service cap may reemerge; the inability of Ramos partisans thus far to control the Senate could lead to a vigorous tussle.

A feisty Congress could also hamper Ramos’s announced commitment to raise taxes and improve revenue collection, which are essential for economic recovery. The Philippine state has long been the most ineffective in Asia in terms of percentage of gross national product collected in taxes. Yet without increased revenues debts cannot be repaid, education cannot be supported-some teachers are already on a hunger strike because of nonpayment of salaries-the infrastructure necessary to support new investment cannot be built, and bureaucrats cannot be paid enough to reduce the temptation to dishonesty.

Because of the Senate’s rejection last year of a new treaty on United States military bases, and an American pullout accelerated by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Ramos also faces a severe drop in American assistance, direct and indirect. Partly for reasons associated with American politics and economics, and partly because of American pique at the Philippine rejection of the bases treaty, the administration of President George Bush and the United States Congress greeted President Ramos with a 60 percent cut in military and economic assistance for 1992, with the prospect of a cut of another 50 percent for 1993. These losses, which could cost the Philippines over $300 million in the first year, are in addition to a nearly equal loss of income from the actual operation of the bases. (The shock will be somewhat delayed by the disbursement of substantial separation payments to former base workers by the United States; next year will be worse.) This shock could have been lessened if the Aquino administration had been serious about planning for new uses for base facilities, but after various studies and the appointment of a special bases conversion commissioner, there is still no concrete plan. So Central Luzon, also devastated by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, will soon be in even deeper depression. And it is too late to think about other uses of Clark Field, since what has not been destroyed by Pinatubo has mostly been looted.

The loss of military assistance, and the consequent pressure from his secretary of defense for new, compensating budget outlays, naturally cause Ramos — who has often been charged by Filipino journalists with being an “American boy” — to try to discover mechanisms by which the Americans could be persuaded to stay on at Subic Bay and continue using the extensive ship repair facilities there, perhaps on a commercial basis. But the Americans symbolized the finality of their departure when they began towing the huge floating drydocks at Subic to Guam early this year, and Ramos has surprised some by his unwillingness to beg the Americans to stay. When asked by American diplomats to make a proposal, he bravely told the press, ‘They are the ones who need those facilities, not us.” But he added, “If we can arrive at an acceptable agreement which will result in mutual benefits for the two countries, well, let’s study that.”

In fact, it is unlikely that the bases use question will ever again become the tremendous irritant it once was in United States-Philippine relations. The relative insignificance of this issue during this year’s presidential campaign was an indication that most Filipinos believe the matter is behind them. Though the shortterm cost may be high (but probably less than some base advocates warned), there is still considerable satisfaction among many Filipinos that the umbilical cord with the United States has been broken.

As on the bases question, other fundamental errors of the Aquino administration plague Ramos’s current economic plans. There is, for instance, the failure to prevent the frequent power blackouts in Manila and elsewhere, which, in addition to severe inconvenience and discomfort, dramatically reduce industrial productivity every day. The Bataan nuclear power plant, built by the American giant Westinghouse after extremely corrupt dealings with Marcos cronies, is located near an active volcano and an earthquake fault, its safety features based on outdated technology. Even before the end of Marcos’s rule its power production had been delayed by court action and investigations, though everyone recognized that its productive capacity was soon to be needed. Aquino decided to mothball the plant indefinitely and took legal action against Westinghouse for bribery. But no plans were made for additional capacity, giving rise to the most severe electric power crisis in Philippine history. Thus Ramos is talking about reopening Bataan, despite dire warnings from safety experts, and has given the highest priority to new plants with more conventional technology. (No high official is talking about conservation of energy.)

A distinct deterrent to investment-the escalation of kidnappings of wealthy businesspeople, mostly Chinese-has also been tackled by Ramos through the creation of a special commission with Vice President Joseph Estrada at the helm. (The onetime movie tough guy has unearthed a kidnapping ring involving top police officials.)

Ramos was praised by the Philippine press, and rightly so, for the straight talk in his inaugural address. “Let us begin by telling ourselves the truth.” We are in trouble, he continued, and “there are no easy answers, no quick fixes.” Such an approach bodes well. Certainly the effort to forge a peaceful settlement with Communist-led insurgents, Muslim rebels, and military dissidents is the right place to start. But unfortunately there is no evidence that the Ramos administration is prepared to deal adequately with the problems that allow the more principled leaders of these groups to continue gaining adherents. There are hints that the agrarian reform that is already progressing at a snail’s pace will be scaled back, and there do not yet appear to be any serious plans to bring genuine Muslim autonomy or to crack down on corruption. Ramos does not seem sufficiently aware of the political consequences of the glaring inequalities in Philippine society — a failing he has in common with most Filipino elites.

Nor has the administrative performance of Ramos’s team been that impressive thus far. Quarrels over patronage and turf have frustrated the implementation of new policies. Ramos has appointed eight presidential advisers whose jurisdictions conflict with those of cabinet members, and he attempts to deal directly with subcabinet officers over the heads of their superiors. In the “chaos that surrounds him,” as the Far Eastern Economic Review’s Rigoberto Tiglao calls it, Ramos has already lost his first executive secretary. There may be more continuity with Aquino here than anyone wanted.

It seems unlikely that the stock market euphoria that immediately followed his election will be sustained by Ramos’s performance in his first year. There are both positive initiatives and forewarnings of serious problems. The “consolidation” of Philippine democracy hangs in the balance.

DAVID WURFEL is a professor of political science at the University of Windsor, Ontario. A longtime observer of the Philippines, his most recent book is Filipino Politics: Development and Decay (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).

Categories Philippines, General politics