SONA 2015: It was boring, it was fine

Like many, I eagerly anticipated the final State of the Nation Address of President Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III. I have listened to SONAs over the years because they seemed to provide important data for several of my advocacies or national life in general.

During the time of President Arroyo, for example, I was interested in whether she would be silent about the reproductive health bill or hostile to it. Like most Filipinos, most of us were also interested in what she had to say that year when her government was threatened by serious allegations of election fraud.

Because of these concerns, I tended to dismiss the political circus that comes with any SONA. A lot of press coverage is always about what the women legislators and the wives of their male counterparts are wearing. Protesters and police face off usually after the protesters burn a few effigies and attempt to overrun whatever barricades the police set up. Then, there is always this noisy mess of useless political commentary, including mine.

Less intense is better

But not this time. 

This surprised me because this is President Aquino’s valedictory. It is supposed to be his accounting of the work he has done. And yet, I could not find it in me to go through the same routine of saying what I liked (to which a thousand other pundits and ordinary folk would disagree) or what I did not like (more disagreements all around) what was lacking (yet more disagreements) and what were the surprises (which I am sure others would not consider surprises).

Unlike previous SONAs where I would play the agree-or-disagree game, the only analysts I agreed with were UP Professors Solita Monsod and Clarita Carlos who said that if people wanted to assess the President’s administration, the SONA was certainly not going to be a good way to approach it.

So for the first time in my SONA-watching practice, I sat back and actually enjoyed the circus.

After all that enjoyment though, I needed to get a grasp of why I did not seem too hot and flustered about the content. Indeed, I am glad he called for an anti-dynasty bill and the passage of the Basic Bangsamoro Law. I am also sad he did not call for the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, the Magna Carta for Informal Workers and the anti-discrimination bill.

But what seemed clear to me was that what he said about this and that advocacy of mine did not seem important to what I needed to do to achieve those legislative goals.

Paradoxically, where the speech and this administration has succeeded, is in making obvious that the SONA is political theater rather than some crucial bit of information that will determine immediate political outcomes and long-term goals.

For once I heard a SONA by a president whose government was not on the brink because of scandals and widespread hostility. For once I heard a President whose vast powers need not necessarily stand in the way or be the only assurance of what the legislature could achieve for my advocacies.

Chance for long-term reform

Two conversations with colleagues come to mind. 

A Thai professor of political science was telling me that he doubted that a military government would ever again be possible in the Philippines. He said he envied the fact that elections, no matter how flawed, seemed so ingrained in our political life that a return to military rule was impossible in the Philippines.

On another occasion in Seoul, a professor of women’s studies had brought me to the central district to gape at the tall skyline and huge buildings. And he said to me, “and we achieved this in one lifetime, in around 50 years.”

I guess how this administration will be judged depends on where you think it began and how change will happen. Aquino inherited a corrupt system made even more corrupt by Arroyo, her kith and her kin. But more than this he inherited a history of elite rule where government was meant to serve only the elite and the powerful. He also inherited a country that, because of a history of dictatorship, repeated people-power “revolutions,” and a previous government that had made both the judiciary and the Congress subservient, had no real trust in its democratic processes or its institutions. 

My long-term vision involves the slow building up of these institutions so that they become accountable to the people and not just the powerful. This change must also happen from within the system itself, pushed by an engaged citizenry and committed reformers.

These changes cannot be made in 6 years, as my Korean colleague notes it took them a lifetime, and that was amazingly fast. But it can begin from even the most flawed of undertakings such as our managing to keep to elections rather than coups, as my Thai colleague notes.

Thus the part of the speech that resonated with me was the President’s insight that history would be his judge. Because if our people’s well-being is the goal, then we can only ask of this administration that it starts us off on our decades-long journey. That cannot be judged on the basis of what is said in a SONA.

President Aquino’s valedictory leads me to ask whether it has moved us forward in what will hopefully be a long but successful process. Has it preserved and expanded a fragile and narrow democracy? Has it begun to improve governance systems? Despite its failure to make sure growth is shared equitably, has it given us a growth platform that the next set of rulers can, if they are so inclined, gear towards the reduction of poverty? Is land reform, a necessary step towards social justice, still possible within my lifetime?

In short, we need to ask whether this administration leaves us with a better chance so that we may become a just and developed country in my children’s lifetime.

My answer is yes. 

Plunder cases have been filed against powerful people. The judiciary has already shown its capacity to contradict the Executive. The next President will not have easy access to the pork barrel of the past to bribe Congress. This President will hand over to another elected chief executive, and when he does, he will join two other living Presidents at the inauguration. It is still possible for the next President to fulfill the promise of land reform and to begin genuinely equitable growth. 

This administration has made it easier for the next one to do these things whereas its predecessor had made it more difficult.

As small a step as that seems, PNoy has nonetheless performed a yeoman’s job. Whether because of his personal probity, good luck or because countless citizens have become more engaged, I cannot tell. It is likely that it is all of these things.

This SONA was really boring for me. And that was very, very good. –