Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Year’s Wish

A Brainy Quote from … Walt Disney and an appropriate reminder to (most) politicians, here and everywhere:

"The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing."


Happy New Year !
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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Review and Forecast

More than in other countries, Christmas in the Philippines is a time to rest, to enjoy life with the family and, above all, to be harmonious. It is not the season of politics, much less a time for politicking. As a result, newspapers, television and radio shows are pretty bloodless, in a political sense. This context may also explain the lack of updates on this site.

The New Year just around the corner, it is a good opportunity to look back and also look forward. In a political review, 2005 was a horrific year for the Philippines. The legitimacy issue of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) has split the political class right down the middle - and with it great parts of Philippine society.

Listening to political debates, at times I started to worry whether the country was heading towards civil war. Quite fortunately, the conflict never escalated to that stage. Maybe, in hindsight, this peacefulness is the only positive aspect of the enduring political crisis.

Arguably the most remarkable political development in 2005 has been the comeback of GMA. Those who prematurely (and repeatedly) wrote her off have lost political credibility. They underestimated their political foe. Strategically, this is a fatal blunder on the side of the disunited opposition. More than her own doings, the opposition’s weakness has helped the president get back on her feet and pretend as if all is in order, as if nothing has happened.

More so than in 2005, GMA will be the master of the political scene in the New Year. She will attend to the matters of state, and leave it to her handlers and allies to fight it out with all those who question her rule.

One should expect that the disunited opposition may once more try to impeach the president in Congress. That is a legitimate effort. Whether it will lead to the desired result is a different matter all together. With general elections due in 2007 (and a constitutional referendum possibly around the corner), the opposition would be well advised to get ready for a showdown at the polls as soon as possible.

If indeed the Filipino people are as disgusted with the president as the oppositionists and pollsters say, it should be an easy win for all those running under the Bash-GMA banner.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Downgrade

Filpinos have become used to demotions in international surveys. Usually, these are related to the economy, particularly the credit ratings. Sadly, we must now add a political downgrade: The negative status change in the annual “Freedom in the World”-report from “free” to “partly free” may be termed a kick in the face for a nation that has been celebrated as a beacon of democracy in Asia and beyond.

That not all is well with Philippine democracy is no secret. To characterize the deficiencies, political scientists have coined the term “illiberal democracy” and applied it also to the Philippines.

In the essay published together with the empirical data, Freedom House calls the Philippine downgrade “the most significant development.” They say that the decision to relegate the country from "free" to “partly free” (together with Thailand and Guyana) is “based on credible allegations of massive electoral fraud, corruption, and the government’s intimidation of elements in the political opposition.”

Add to all this the killings of journalists and leftist activists and the picture of the Philippine political culture is indeed far from rosy.

The government has repeatedly shown notable concern to please foreign economic rating institutes and initiated various reforms in the financial sector. Let’s hope it takes the political downgrade just as seriously and pushes for long overdue political reforms.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Win-Win for Gloria

One may not like the President of the Philippine Republic, and pollsters tell us nearly two thirds of the people have little if any sympathy for their supreme leader. But nobody would question her capability of political agenda setting. From being near the very bottom just half a year ago, GMA has managed an extraordinary political comeback. Today, once more, she seems to be under full control.

The central element in the political survival plan of the President is charter change. The President has given her political blessing to the constitutional reform, and others are doing the nitty-gritty job of securing majorities. While her political foes and allies are fighting over the details of the new basic law, GMA may lay back and enjoy the spectacle knowing that whatever the outcome she will be safe. It is a classical win-win situation for Gloria.

This point was brought back to me in the commentary of Federico Pascual in today’s The Star newspaper:

“If the people will not approve of the Con Com proposal, GMA stays. If the people approves (with the full campaign support of politicians who want a free ride extension), GMA stays longer. Either way, GMA’s term is not cut short.”
And the commentary concludes: Tuloy ang ligaya, or: The fun goes on.

Unfortunately, it’s not that funny after all.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

No to No El (No Elections)

The proposed scraping of the 2007 general elections contained in the transitory provisions of the Consultative Commission’s (ConCom) report for the amendment of the Philippine constitution is at the very best a bizarre idea. Assuming that the intention of constitutional reform is improving the democratic quality of government, then abolishing elections, the heart and substance of democracy, could be called the wrong strategy.

But the very assumption is contentious. At the outset of the Charter Change (Cha Cha) debate many Filipinos question the sincerity of the president’s intentions. To quote Amando Doronila in today’s Philippine Daily Inquirer, the project is “an ill-disguised subterfuge to keep her in power until 2010.” This position has become a mantra of GMA-foes of various colors.

On the other side, the offer of a “free” three-year term may be just too tempting for many congressmen and women as well as other elected leaders. Still, expect those waiting in line and already preparing their 2007 candidacy to resist vehemently. These aspiring leaders will be joined by many a vice major and vice governor who just can’t wait to get a shot at the top job. And don’t forget the Senators who haven’t only fundamental political reservations. They would have a hard time to accept status degradation to a simple parliamentarian anyway.

Last but not least in the long list of those who eventually will say “No” to “No Elections” is the most important constituency of all: the people. While most Filipinos make no secret of their revulsion of the political class, I have won the impression that most seem to enjoy the handouts and the circus generally associated with political elections in the Philippine “democraczy.” This said, they will vote for and not against more elections.

In conclusion: While the president has been underestimated by many many times, this time I wouldn’t bet at dime that her No El-proposal will be implemented. The Lower House may say yes, but hardly the Senate. In the end, the plan would have to be presented to the people for popular approval in a referendum.

If the president is really as unpopular as myriad opinion polls make believe, then her ambitious charter change proposal would be doomed anyway.

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Koreans in the Philippines

Before moving to the Philippines in 2002, I spent six years in South Korea. There I did basically the same I am trying to do here: promote liberal politics.

Coming from Korea, where I spent tremendously interesting and also formative times, I was receptive to the Korean presence in the Philippines from the beginning. This presence I find conspicuous and also dynamic: I go on holidays in the Philippines, and most other foreigners I meet are usually Koreans. Korean restaurants are found in all parts of the country, they are among my favorite eateries.

I have always wanted to put to paper my impressions and information concerning the Koreans in the Philippines. On the occasion of the state visit of the South Korean President Roh, Moo-hyun to Manila (14.-16. 12. 2005) I finally found a suitable occasion. Appropriately newspapers in both Manila and Seoul published my commentary entitled “The ‘Korean wave’ in the Philippines”.

There I write that bilateral relations reach far beyond the formal diplomatic level, as “migratory patterns” have become an important aspect. For me the most fascinating facet of Philippine-Korean relations is the immigration of South Koreans to the Philippines. While many Filipinos are doing what is in their power to turn the back on their country (and 8 million OFWs are already earning a living overseas) a growing number of South Koreans have found a new home away from home in the Philippines.

I invite you to read my article to find out why.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Garci, Con Com, Cha Cha

This time, I didn’t bother to watch the live coverage of the House of Representatives hearings on the wiretapping scandal. Reading today’s newspapers, I think this was a wise decision as nothing new came out of it. It even seems that most administration parliamentarians (and they control a huge majority) have written off the whole matter.

Meanwhile far more substantive political discussions have been held in the Constitutional Commission (Con Com) which is posed to submit to the president by the end of this week recommendations for a new Philippine constitution to replace the 1987 basic law.

Compared to the media exposure of the “Hello Garci” hearings, the discussions in the Constitutional Commission have received at best secondary public attention. I also have the sense, that many members of the political class and the political parties are not particularly interested in the charter change debate. Not a few Filipinos I have talked to see the whole project as just another ploy of the president to divert public attention away from the ongoing political crisis.

I don’t think this is a fair assessment: GMA could happily continue her term to the very end without changing the constitution. Other well known gentlemen are pressing for amendments, and their motives are not exclusively altruistic.

That charter change doesn’t top the people’s priorities has once more been revealed in a recent Pulse Asia survey. Two highlights only:

- nearly seven in ten Filipinos (68 %) say they do not know enough about the existing constitution
- six in ten (60 %) are not in favor of shifting from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government.

Conclusion: Much convincing (should we call it civic education?) is needed before cha cha becomes reality.


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    Monday, December 12, 2005

    Human Rights and Development

    In commemoration of World Human Rights Day, the Philippine Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism held its annual Kapihan on the Human Rights Situation Today in Quezon City this Monday. I was invited to deliver a special message. I appreciate this invitation as it allowed me to network with civil society groups and also gather first-hand information on an issue close to the heart (and mind) of every liberal.

    What I heard regarding the state of human rights in the Philippines is hardly encouraging. While the speakers acknowledged a new openness in ASEAN to push for a regional human rights mechanism, the Philippine speakers said that in their own country things are not getting any better at all. One concern is the seemingly endless series of political killings targeting left-wing activists and journalists in the country-side. Some speakers accused the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of hardening its position vis-à-vis the opposition and sacrificing civil liberties to stay in power.

    Speakers also challenged the government’s optimism regarding the economy. They claimed the opposite is the case and said a majority of Filipinos was worse off today than some years ago.

    Listening to the highly critical accounts of civil society leaders and comparing these with reports I get from the other side, it became apparent to me once more how divided the Philippine society is even if it comes to an analysis of the basic conditions prevailing in the country.

    In my greeting, I highlighted two liberal essentials:

    First, human rights are universal. Expressing solidarity and support for victims of rights violations is not only legitimate but mandated, also in an international setting. Second, the human rights issue is basically political. While I appreciate that in a country with mass poverty like the Philippines, human rights activists advocate social and economic rights (the so called second generation rights), abundant empirical data show that the key to economic and social development lies in safeguarding the respect for the political and civil human rights (the so called first generation human rights).

    My conclusion: Before Filipinos do not rid themselves of corruption and impunity and at the same time strengthen their political institutions all the talk of social and economic progress will remain baseless.


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    Saturday, December 10, 2005

    More Bloggers than Blog Readers

    While Germany (the place of my origin) may be far away, geographical distance in the globalized world has become relative. This said, I wish to share an interesting piece of information from the heart of Europe.

    According to a recent survey published in DER SPIEGEL (Germany’s equivalent to Newsbreak in the Philippines) there seem to be more Germans writing blogs than those reading them. Of 100.000 surveyed Internet users a mere four percent said they read blog posts regularly. At the same time, and this I find revealing, 12 percent of the surveyed Internet users are bloggers themselves.

    The survey also shows that the online publications of traditional newspapers and magazines attract far more visitors than the personal weblogs.

    For bloggers the message is obvious: to produce better and more attractive content and find ways to attract more (returning) readers.

    Myliberaltimes is in the very early stages. But I get the sense that this may take time and perseverance.


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    Friday, December 09, 2005

    Politicization

    Yesterday, I lamented that the politicization of the wiretapping scandal in the Philippines is a virtual guarantee that no final verdict and, therefore, no closure could be expected anytime soon.

    I had discussed this point with some Filipino friends the other night (all of them anti-GMA) and they said the fact that the prosecution has refrained from initiating criminal investigations demonstrates that the government is avoiding a legal solution.

    According to Jarius Bondoc in The Philippine Star (9. 12. 2005) not only the administration but also the opposition is responsible for the politicization of what – in my eyes – is first and foremost a legal matter. This is what the commentator writes:

    “That there was lying, cheating and stealing in the polls, as opponents accuse Ms Arroyo, is highly probable. But that the accusers brought their case first to the streets and only on second thought to the impeachment hall, yet never to the criminal court, betrayed their motive. They were themselves liars, cheaters and stealers out to grab power and not to serve justice. People know it and thus did not join street demonstrations.”



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    Thursday, December 08, 2005

    Wrong Priorities

    Those who had expected yesterday’s hearing in the House of Representatives to bring closure to the wiretapping affair have been proven wrong. Various scenarios are peddled after former elections commissioner Virgillo Garcillano’s testimony at the lower house of Congress. According to one Liberal parliamentarian, the hearings are nothing but an exercise of obfuscation. His Party leader (and Senate President) Franklin Drilon argued that Mr. Garcillano’s testimony “has opened more doors rather than closed a chapter.”

    The scandal is evolving to a seemingly endless affair. Now we hear the nation will be treated to three new tapes.

    I spent Wednesday morning glued to the television set in our office in Makati City. I invited my colleagues to join, but they said they have more important things to do. After lunch, I had seen and heard enough. Probably the legalistic arguments and hairsplitting of lawyers turned politicians (or witness) had tired me. All the talk reminded me that, after all, this is primarily a legal issue. The alleged wiretappings and manipulations of the vote are criminal offenses. On the other hand, their politicization is a virtual guarantee that no final verdict may be expected any time soon.

    Filipinos I talked to called the exercise in parliament a waste of time. Their frustration is based on the assumption that nothing (good) will come out of the process.

    My personal frustration is different: Let the legislators investigate as much as they want. But at the same time they should not forget the root cause of the turmoil - the outdated electoral system which is open to manipulation and rigging. As I have argued in a commentary some months ago, the antiquated way elections are conducted in the Philippines, is the mother of all evil.



    As long as the democratic state cannot safeguard clean elections, the sovereign’s will be at the mercy of so called operators and other criminal manipulators. The fact that the political class is collectively not pushing for electoral reform, indicates that in the end of the day many are comfortable with the status quo. Cynics may call this indirect collusion, I would prefer to speak of wrong priorities.


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    Wednesday, December 07, 2005

    Party Mates

    By chance, I zapped into an interesting TV-debate yesterday evening on ANC-News Channel. Joining host Pia Hontiveros on her weekly “Strictly Politics”- talk show were two political friends, DENR-Secretary Mike Defensor and former Undersecretary of Education Chito Gascon. Will it all be over by Christmas?, was the tricky question the two fine gentlemen were asked to answer. Hardly surprising, Mike was inclined to answer in the affirmative, while Chito asserted that the anti-GMA forces, of which he is an intellectual leader, will not surrender any time soon.

    Had I been a newcomer to this country’s unpredictable domestic politics I would have assumed that Mike and Chito were the worst political foes. This is not to say that the conduct of the debate was hostile, actually the opposite could be said. I am referring to the substance of the arguments: While Mike defended the President in an eloquence only he possesses, Chito argued with rhetorical skill that his group would pursue its campaign against GMA till the very end.

    In this issue Mike and Chito could hardly be further apart. They personalize the black and white divide that has split Philippine society (and the political class). Not the slightest indication of a political compromise became apparent in this debate. This is all the more surprising and disappointing as Mike and Chito are actually members of the same political family. These articulate and charismatic young leaders are both members of the Liberal Party. Their partisan affiliation was not an issue that evening.

    This omission (also of the moderator) is a reflection of two phenomena of Philippine politics today: First, members of the liberal camp do not speak with one tongue in an important matter of the state (they actually have agreed to disagree in this crucial affair). Second, on a more general note, the role of political parties in the ongoing crisis has further diminished. This is detrimental for the consolidation of Philippine democracy.

    Tuesday, December 06, 2005

    Garci Bombs

    Everybody seems to agree in at least one point: The political crisis in the Philippines has simmered down after the failure of the impeachment in the House of Representatives. While the opposition has tried to keep the (il)legitimacy issue of GMA’s presidency alive and continues to challenge her rule, the President and her allies claim that the country is back to business as usual. In a commentary, I explain what may be called the extraordinary political resilience of the President. If you have a closer look, this is only partly her own doing. GMA’s major strong point is the weakness of her opponents, who lack unity, leadership, a concept, not to mention a strategy.

    A new chapter in this drama is just unfolding as Virgilio Garcillano who has been accused of colluding with the President to rig the May 2004 elections has entered the stage from his hideout in Mindanao. The circumstances of his emergence are worthy of a political thriller. Garci, as the maligned former elections commissioner has been christened by the public, is expected to testify at a joint committee hearing of the House of Representatives this Wednesday (December 7, 2005). His strategy has two components: denial (that he conspired with GMA to rig the vote) and counter-attack: Turning the tables, Garcillano’s lawyer has suggested that several of the President’s political foes have also spoken to the former elections commissioner during the 2004 polls. This is aimed at questioning the moral authority of the President’s foes.

    Is the Philippine political class heading towards a political bloodbath or will it all end with a grand cover-up? Whatever the outcome of the ongoing drama, I don’t see closure anytime soon.

    Sunday, December 04, 2005

    El Nido

    Once more, I’ll have to mention my 50.birthday. For apart from the Ipod nano (this wonderful little toy) my wife also treated me to unforgettable days in El Nido – a true paradise in the very north of the Philippine island province Palawan. This is not a travelogue, but the natural beauty of El Nido is so spectacular that I feel an urge to share with you my fascination. I have been around quite a lot in Asia and also in other parts of the world, but – quite honestly – I have yet to see anything as beautiful as the maritime scenery of this bay with its 45 islands and islets. “Words cannot describe the beauty of this place,” writes a recent visitor, and I agree. So, if you enjoy beautiful nature, this place is a must.



    Apart from the Korean honeymooners who also in this part of the Philippines have become the foundation of the tourism industry (one of the positive side effects of this is that everywhere you go, you will find kimchi even for breakfast!), I met up with a young Filipino banker who had emigrated to Canada and had just returned for his wedding. As is often the case when I meet Philippine professionals, we ended up discussing politics. This young fellow was rather depressed. “Nothing in the political system will change,” he said trying to explain why he had turned his back on the Philippines. That same day, the media reported that according to a recent survey 23 percent of Filipinos deem their country is “hopeless.”

    My hope is that they are wrong.

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