MANILA — To characterize the public mood in the Philippines as depressed is no exaggeration. According to recent surveys, pessimism about economic prospects is on the rise, and a majority of Filipinos believe their quality of life has deteriorated in the past year. A recent Asian Development Bank survey reported poverty in the Philippines has worsened since 1997.

It is not surprising that most Filipinos blame the government and particularly President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for the dire straits they see themselves in. Barely a year after her re-election to a six-year term, her popularity has dropped to the lowest level since she assumed power in early 2001.

In a democratic context, low popularity ratings and disenchantment with political leadership are not unusual. On the other hand, political rule is always bound by time limits; elections give the people the opportunity to judge and replace leaders they dislike or find ineffective. Political elections assume a stabilizing role as they provide the opposing forces a chance to assume power in a constitutional manner. One crucial condition for this political stability is that political contenders play by the basic rules (usually codified in the constitution). Conceding defeat after the elections and acknowledging the winner is one important element in what may be termed the consensus of democrats.

In the Philippines, this consensus does not exist. “You either win elections, or you are cheated,” is a popular explanation in a country in which electoral fraud and vote manipulation remain a depressing routine. Up to this very day, the opposition forces have refrained from publicly accepting their defeat in the presidential elections held well over a year ago. Politicians of the opposition constantly challenge the political legitimacy of the presidency. Worse still for the incumbent: Many Filipinos seem to believe that Arroyo cheated her way into the presidential palace in May 2004.

In these days, the efforts of the opposition to undermine and eventually bring down the president are focused on allegations that members of the first family are being paid off by syndicates running illegal lotteries. Opposition lawmakers claim to have witnesses willing to testify that Arroyo’s family members have taken kickbacks from criminal gangs running an illegal numbers game popularly known as jueteng.

Political irony lies in the fact that Arroyo’s predecessor, Joseph Estrada, was ousted in 2001 in the course of a popular uprising after being accused of accepting money from jueteng lords. Not a few Filipinos continue to support the disgraced former leader. It is safe to assume that they are just waiting to take revenge for the ousting of their political idol.

The government has denied the current allegations and characterized them as yet another plot in a long series of destabilization efforts. “Destabilization” has become one of the buzz words in today’s Philippine political jargon. Typically, retired military officers who have seen better days, and now perceive themselves as national saviors, are at the center of the extra-constitutional schemes. Military interventions in domestic affairs have a long tradition in this country. But compared to the coup attempts in the 1980s, the more recent threats to the democratic constitutional order appear feeble.

While political observers in Manila agree that today there is no imminent danger of a military junta taking power with popular support, several commentators concur with what influential Filipino columnist Amando Doronila has recently termed “an increasing nostalgia for strongman rule.”

As a foreigner actively engaged in promoting democracy in this country, I disagree. While opinion polls show that four out of five Filipinos say that “democracy may have problems,” the same polls also reveal that an overwhelming majority believes that democratic governance is “better than any other form of government.” The available empirical data show that the Filipino masses do not crave a fascist dictator (they had enough of that during the rule of Ferdinand Marcos). They long for strong, effective and, at the same time, accountable political leadership. In this regard, the president has obviously not met popular expectations.

While Arroyo has promised to be the leader of a “strong republic,” the government’s record in key policy areas is disappointing: Many Filipinos question the president’s sincerity in combating corruption; they are worried about rising prices and the danger of more poverty; and finally, they are concerned about the deterioration of law and order. The uncontrolled killings of journalists and progressive activists are but the tip of the iceberg.

Poor governance is not only an issue with the Philippine public, the media and the opposition. The quality of government (or the lack of it) and its detrimental effects on society are dealt with in a recent survey published by the World Bank entitled “Governance Matters IV. Governance Indicators 1996-2004.”

The study evaluates the governments of 209 countries and rates their performance in six governance-related fields: human rights, political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, the rule of law and finally the control of corruption.

For the Philippines, the report contains only bad news. Compared with 2002 and 1998, the scores in all six categories went down in 2004. The drop was particularly sharp regarding the rule of law and political stability, in which this Southeast Asian nation is ranked with countries like Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan and Haiti.

The World Bank report’s main point is that governance has a direct impact on the economy. Good governance is a precondition for economic advancement and higher living standards — and not the other way around.

The message for the politicians is clear: If they want to improve the economic conditions of their constituents — and one would want to assume that this is the ultimate goal of all political forces — then they must start putting their house in order politically. The political class in the Philippines still has a long way to go.

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