5 candidates with only 1 policy platform?
Shortly, the country will probably spend well over P16 billion for this year’s election to elect a new set of leaders – over 81 governors, 234 district representatives, 58 party-list representatives, 1,634 mayors, 12 senators, a vice president and a president, and numerous other local officials spread across the archipelago.
The figures exclude the P6.7 billion already spent by national candidates on pre-election campaign and the billions more that will pour during the official campaign period.
And because most political parties in the country are weak, and merely serve as convenient vehicles for the personal ambitions of politicians, it is not surprising that elections usher in a chaotic mix of personalistic exhortations combined with some bold aspirations that often seem disconnected from political and economic reality.
Eliminating crime in 3 months? Expanding the benefits of seniors and other residents in Makati to cover the rest of the country’s citizens? Ramping up the benefits from 4Ps and expanding its coverage? Feeding all children in all public schools? The cost, practicality, and feasibility of all these policy proposals could be better debated, but very little of that takes place.
Instead, what is taking place is a very personal and partisan attack on different candidates – reducing the discusssion of the way forward to the personalities on offer.
Yet one of the primary purposes of holding elections in the first place is to spark collective action on the way forward for the country. Elections are supposed to renew a nation’s ability to work as one, armed with a common vision and the steps necessary to accomplish it. Candidates’ policy reform platforms should reflect that vision and begin to detail those necessary steps.
This article summarizes the positions taken by the presidentiables on selected key policy issues. Ideally, voters will need to assess not just what candidates say they will do, but also their inherent capabilities to carry out these campaign promises. We can begin to assess the former (what they say they will do), but we are far from assessing the latter. This will continue to be the case until deep political reforms take root in our democracy.
Who promised what?
The presidential candidates’ policy positions indicate a surprising degree of similarity on many fronts. Our stocktaking is based on their public policy pronouncements earlier this year, signaling that these were positions taken earlier compared to positions possibly taken later.
Almost all want to support and even expand the government’s flagship anti-poverty program, Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps). All appear to support the freedom of information bill. And all but one suggest recalibrating the economic provisions in the Constitution.
All but one support continued agrarian reform; and all but one support income tax reforms. Further, all but one appear supportive of the RH Law. And 3 of the 5 candidates support ASEAN economic integration.
Nevertheless, the overall consistency of positions on socio-economic and anti-poverty reforms does not seem to be reflected in the positions on key political reforms. Only two of the candidates have definitively supported an anti-political dynasty bill (Poe and Santiago).
Only one candidate categorically supports a law enhancing political party development (Santiago). Only one candidate advocates consistently for dramatic political reforms reflected in a federalist system of government (Duterte). Only two candidates support the Bangsamoro Basic Law (Duterte and Roxas). But for these distinctions, the candidates actually appear to be very much alike in their policy platforms.
Can these promises be delivered?
The stocktaking of policy positions reflected here may still change, depending on the candidates’ messages in the final weeks running up to the elections in May.
Yet clearly, these first positions already indicate a heavy emphasis on elevating the ambition on economic reforms, providing a strong positive signal regarding the country’s possible direction on this front. Nevertheless, the candidates remain relatively silent on many political reforms.
The latter is a disturbing pattern since the second assessment on the candidates – one based on their actual ability to deliver on these promises – is far less sanguine given the generally weak political parties in the country. And it is precisely this factor that could be strengthened by building a more accountable and inclusive democratic political system.
Presently, the alliances cobbled together by each of the candidates is less likely guided by shared policy positions, and more likely borne of political compromise and backroom deals on power-sharing. Like before, this provides tricky ground for forging policy reforms.
International evidence provides much food for thought on transforming politicians’ promises into action. A recent study by Professor Cesi Cruz of the University of British Columbia and Philip Keefer of the World Bank examined the outcomes of over 500 World Bank loans in over 100 countries targeted at public administration reforms.
These scholars found evidence that the key ingredients for long-term gains in economic development depend on factors such as the existence of programmatic parties, along with an independent judiciary and an autonomous civil service.
In fact, programmatic political parties – those with well-articulated policy platforms – also tend to forge consensus, endure, and keep their promises effectively, while also enhancing accountability with voters and boosting government capacity.
Programmatic parties are key
In countries with no programmatic parties in power, the authors estimate that the probability of reform success is a mere 20%. Yet in countries with at least 3 of the largest parties in the government coalition and the largest party in the opposition being programmatic, the success rate of reforms rises to almost 60%.
The authors conclude that the most important feature of success is not really whether the parties in power are "left-" or "right-" leaning in the political spectrum. Rather, the key element is that they did their homework – that they actually had a policy platform and reform strategy to begin with.
These conditions for reform success are what we do not have right now – precisely because political reforms are almost nowhere in the agenda. It is therefore critical for the media to grill the candidates not just on the "what," but also on the "how." And the "how" deals with political economy, and the effective balancing of interests with the greater common good.
The relative silence over key political reforms is likely due to the controversial nature of the proposed laws, especially the FOI and anti-dynasty bills. This is an opening for a genuine debate, where the presidential candidates can reveal their differences in position.
Unfortunately efforts to press presidential candidates to answer questions on political reform have been underwhelming, so far. Also, media coverage is largely limited to blow-by-blow accounts of provincial sorties, failing to highlight any speech or unscripted remark that reveals a candidate’s stance on a political issue.
Ultimately, economic reforms and gains are only sustainable and potentially inclusive, to the extent that political reforms go hand in hand with them. The first candidate who convincingly elaborates on that mix will de facto be the distinct option among the 5 choices right now. – Rappler.com
Ron Mendoza is an economist who will soon join the Ateneo School of Government.
Jan Fredrick Cruz is a researcher with the Ateneo de Davao University.