Category Archives: The Philippines

The Philippines – The President and Political Cha-cha

The issue of Charter Change, or constitutional revision, has gathered steam in the Philippines recently in regards to two areas: one, constitutional revision to extend the President’s term of office; two, constitutional revisions to reduce the powers of the Supreme Court.

Discussion of constitutional revisions towards the end of a popular president’s term – President “Pnoy” Aquino III’s approval at about 55 percent in July is about a 10-point decline from March but still high for the executive after four years of the six-year term – is not uncommon. What is interesting about this discussion of a constitutional revision to the term-limits of the president is its tie-in to the second area, revisions to the Supreme Court’s powers, that relates specifically to President Pnoy’s displeasure with the Supreme Court’s 13-0 ruling on the unconstitutionality of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) that was administered through the executive office.

Executives in democracies bring the “power” and “arbitrariness” of a single decision-maker into policy-making without the objectionable aspects of those qualities, largely because of the constraints of horizontal accountability between government institutions to check and restrain abuses of power by branches of government or public agencies, and vertical accountability.[1] At the same time, it is useful to note that when O’Donnell (1998) first raised the concept of horizontal accountability, he held “judicial autonomy” as “tricky” because the lack of oversight to enhance its autonomy may lead directly to a lack of accountability (123).[2]

The constitutional revision situation in the Philippines, then, is illuminating for encapsulating the struggle of balancing power with constraints for not one but two branches of the government. But perhaps it is most instructive in terms of the losses from this struggle: the latest polls show approval ratings dipping across all three branches of government.

It is perhaps not surprising that struggles between the branches of government do not usually lead to victors, at least from the perspective of electoral support. This disapproval provides a useful context for evaluating the value of constitutional revisions: it suggests that few consider system-wide changes as appropriate for dealing with conflicts within the government. And it may also serve as a useful reminder: insofar as politicians are generally seen as motivated by self-interest,[3] constitutional revisions that benefit incumbents are also generally not viewed with approbation.


[1] See discussions in O’Donnell (1998), and Yap and Gibb (2013/14: 160), about horizontal accountability as well as its complement, vertical accountability, where public officials are held accountable through the electoral process, an active civil society, or a free press.

[2] Studies of accountability generally focus on executive accountability, probably because of the potential for abuses related to the position of head of government and commander-in-chief of the military.

[3] Bowler et al, 2006.


The Philippines – Political parties and Presidential power

Vice president Jejomar Binay recently left his party of 30 years, the Partido ng Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), to form a new party in preparation for his run at the 2016 presidential elections. VP Binay was a member of the Laban (Laban ng Bayan) Party when it was headed by former senator Benigno Aquino. The Laban Party joined forces with the Partido Demokratiko ng Pilipinas (PDP) in 1986, and has enjoyed significant electoral success – winning the presidency under Corazon Aquino in 1986 – as well as lacklustre performance – in the last 2013 elections, it won one seat in the Senate and 2 of the 231 seats in the House.

With VP Binay’s departure from the PDP-Laban, the party has announced that it will leave the main opposition coalition, the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA). The UNA was an electoral alliance formed in part with VP Binay’s support as national chair of PDP-Laban. However, PDP-Laban President Senator Aquilino Pimentel III was opposed to the coalition and did not run under the UNA banner for his senatorial seat but, instead, under the administration’s Team PNoy, which he successfully secured.

The situation with the PDP-Laban and the UNA underscores changeability in political parties in the Philippines and renews the question: how does this changeability affect presidential power and policy performance in the country? The answer – discussed at greater length below – is not hopeful: the changeability undermines programmatic political development and fails to displace personalistic money-centric politics.

Studies identify at least three fundamental roles for political parties:[1] (1) as vehicles to mobilize support for elections; (2) as a political pillar encapsulating regularized patterns, such as programmatic political contestation rather than personalistic politics or candidate-centered politics; and (3) undergird executive-legislature relations that frame political performance.

Do political parties perform as vehicles to mobilize support for elections in the Philippines? On the one hand, thus far, presidential candidates have continued to run under party labels; on the other hand, it is debatable if this represents a rallying under political parties or if political parties are rallying around strong candidates. Thus, for instance, the 2013 elections for the senate are not necessarily indicative of political party performance as much as Team Pnoy’s success.

Are political parties in the Philippines encapsulating regularized patterns? The answer to this is less ambiguous than the previous: studies show that political trust remains low in the Philippines, and the electorate remains sceptical of political institutions and representatives of Congress, Senate, and political parties.[2]

Do political parties undergird executive-legislature relations that frame political performance? As the PDP-Laban and UNA situation indicate, and the rebuilding of the Liberal Party under President Aquino III suggest, political parties are still working out their coalescence. While this process is underway, executive-legislative relations continue to ride on personalistic relations. This means that successful policymaking generally carries high transaction costs.

Clearly, political party institutionalization in the Philippines will benefit the country in the immediate term and the long run. There is reason for hope: as executives and legislators become increasingly cognizant of the significant political and social costs in running personalistic campaigns and as the anticorruption efforts deepen, the trends will converge towards greater institutionalization.

The Philippines – Rehabilitating presidential confidence following a crisis

The mounting criticisms of President “Noynoy” Aquino’s handling of the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan underscore the impact of natural disaster management on assessments of governmental performance, particularly presidential performance. Public administration and policy studies offer a wealth of lessons to governments on what to do or not do in these instances of crisis-management, and this essay will not tread the grounds so well-articulated by these experts.[1]

Instead, this essay deals with an issue integral to performance following a crisis: how does the President rehabilitate public confidence following this fallout? It is often difficult to isolate the effects of public disapproval of specific incidents: for instance, how much did Katrina affect public approval of President G. W. Bush, given the other “missteps” that followed in the heels of Katrina?[2] Nevertheless, precipitous declines in public disapproval reduce legislative support for a president’s initiatives.[3] What may the President do to rehabilitate public confidence, particularly in a democratizing country where slowed or stalled reforms are hazardous to political, social, and economic developments?

Adapting from studies of credible apologies,[4] two processes are integral to this effort: (a) review and assessment by committees comprising non-government citizens; (b) reparations to the affected. The review and assessment makes clear that the President and his administration have a commitment towards transparency, accountability, and capacity-building, and the composition of these committees by non-government personnel is directly relevant to the government’s credibility. Reparations underscore the President’s vested, empathetic response that acknowledges the impact and devastation on lives and livelihood; this ability to relate often distinguishes good leaders from the rest.

The massive humanitarian aid to this disaster emphasizes the national and international efforts that have rallied to help with the tremendous tasks of recovery and rebuilding. In the face of such work, rebuilding of public confidence may be relegated as a natural offshoot of work to be accomplished or scuttled to the sidelines for at a later date. Hopefully, it is clear that purposeful rebuilding of the country and public confidence concurrently is more effective for short- and long-term stability and success.

The Philippines – Government Funds and Institution-building

A beleaguered President Benigno Aquino III challenged his opponents in early October to “Go ahead, impeach me” as efforts intensified to launch an inquiry into the existence and use of funds in the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) under the Presidency.

Affectionately known as Noynoy or Pnoy, the President has seen his approval ratings decline following the discovery of the DAP. The DAP was promulgated in October 2011; it recovers unused or underused public funds that had been targeted in the annual budget for spending and became a source of funding for senators’ projects and constituency spending. The unfortunate tie-in of DAP in the midst of public protests against and criminal investigations of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – the large pork-barrel scandal where key congressional members are currently investigated for diversion and misuse of funds and corruption – has seen the extension of public disapprobation to the President. Public petitions to the Supreme Court to act against the DAP has led to the scheduling of oral arguments for November 19 on the constitutionality of the DAP. For the President, whose key policy stance is the tuwid na daan (straight path), these are dark days indeed.

The controversy over the DAP is currently focused on the possible ethical breaches (at the very least) regarding the funds. This may sidestep a key issue regarding the use and effects of government spending: to build politics, society, and the economy. Importantly, in democratizing countries, these tasks translate into institution-building.[1] Institution-building takes on particular significance in democratizing nations because it displaces personalistic politics so that institutions – rather than personalities and personal relations – develop the facility and capacity to deliver regularly political, public, and social goods.[2] Political development in a democratizing system, then, depends on successful institution-building.

It is in this regard that the DAP may be a disservice to politics and society in the Philippines. Although “People Power” shepherded the democratization process in the Philippines, personalistic politics remains undented while institution-building has struggled to move beyond the presidency to other institutions, such as programmatic parties.[3] The presidency, then, continues to play a central and dominant role in domestic politics. Consequently, the occupant remains vulnerable to questions of ethics related to being the focus of power, i.e., abuses and corruption of high political office.

There is no question that the DAP serves a source of funds for expeditiously dealing with crises in the country, as its use towards the recent earthquake relief in the Central Visayan provinces demonstrates. President Aquino III’s point regarding the efficacy of the DAP, then, is not baseless.

Critics of the funds may be better positioned to note that judicious use of government funds extends beyond efficacy to institution-building. In this regard, President Aquino III is an important ally: he remains a highly regarded president, notwithstanding the recent decline in his approval ratings. More so than his predecessors, then, this is a president who may be able to swing the much-needed reforms towards institution-building, perhaps starting with who/what disseminates funds.

 [3] Rocamora, Joel. 1998. “Philippine Political Parties, Electoral System and Political Reform.” Philippines International Review, 1(1).