The political economy of the Philippines reflects such “a long history of missteps”, as President Benigno Aquino noted recently, that many wonder if the positive change ushered in during his term would be undone when he leaves Malacanang Palace next year. Roller-coaster politics and boom-bust economic cycles that have plagued the nation for decades ought to deter politicians and voters from taking the current rosy picture for granted. Mr Aquino himself fears his “straight path” reform agenda is at stake as he’s running out of time (being constitutionally barred from standing again). And there’s no certainty his choice of a successor with integrity (Interior Minister Manuel Roxas) will win over voters.
In Manila’s culture of patronage (the so-called Padrino System), good guys finish last, it seems. It’s telling that Mr Roxas is now trailing in popularity polls against Vice-President Jejomar Binay, although the latter is being investigated for graft. Mr Aquino strove to rein in rampant corruption. But, as Filipinos know full well, hard-won gains tend to be easily squandered. It took a people’s revolution to topple the tainted former president Joseph Estrada. Yet he was later cleared by an election commission to run for the presidency and is now the mayor of Manila, despite being convicted of plunder. In a nation “where forgiveness and forgetfulness are often interchangeable”, as commentator Richard Heydarian put it, the path to political reform still remains a fraught one.
The country’s neighbours would hope that the trajectory of the Philippine economy will not be mired in similar uncertainty. Under Mr Aquino, the nation has clocked impressive growth since 2010 and made the period “the most vibrant phase of our economy in 40 years”, as he said. That exuberance is justified: The nation’s debt rose from junk to investment grade, foreign direct investments grew dramatically, unemployment fell, and consumer spending flourished. The region, too, would benefit if such momentum is maintained for another half-decade and beyond so the nation can realise its potential of becoming one of Asean’s largest consumer markets.
What can jeopardise this prospect is a lack of policy continuity, weak governance and lopsided growth that is leaving around 28 per cent of its people in the depths of poverty, according to some estimates. Filipinos can take pride in turning the nation from “the sick man of Asia” to a tiger economy, but catching up with its neighbours will take years of persistence. As if Manila’s roiling politics weren’t bad enough, the nation has to also contend with risks like internal stability (for example, in the Mindanao region and Sulu Archipelago), terrorist activities and El Nino weather conditions that are expected to wreak havoc from time to time. Without resolute political action, the outlook could be stormy in other spheres, too.