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Julio S. Amador III: Aquino's successor faces challenge building on recent success

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Policemen use their shields as they block protesters in Manila July 27.   © Reuters

As the Philippines heads into an election next year, there are questions as to whether its current performance is sustainable, or if changes in political leadership will cause policy swings that derail the country's growth and development.

     The Philippines is performing well as an economy and society. President Benigno Aquino's administration can be credited for providing stability in governance and improving overall trust in the government. The Asian Development Bank says the country is "among the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia."

Newfound stability

Notwithstanding the natural disasters that have wreaked havoc in large parts of the country in recent years, "The Philippines never had it so good," according to economist Gilberto M. Llanto, president of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies. Llanto cited economic growth that has averaged an annual 5.9% over the last three years, as well as the country's outperformance of other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

     The strong economy should translate into more jobs and ultimately a better quality of life, goals that must be among the priorities of any successful presidential candidate. Overseas Filipinos, estimated to number more than 9 million, according to government figures, will want to see their remittances transformed into economic gains by their families.

      On the political front, there have been no serious challenges to Aquino, unlike his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had a turbulent term of office. Aquino's popularity shielded him from the need to appease the business sector, something that regularly troubled the former president.

     Aquino has not suffered from any crises of political legitimacy; his election was never tainted by charges of electoral fraud. Thus, he has been able to make full use of his time in office to advance his agenda. He has not encountered serious political opposition during his term and, as a result, was able to push through significant policy changes, the most recent of which is the passage of the Philippine Competition Act.

Ongoing challenges

However, the reforms needed to ensure the Philippines continues to grow and develop must go beyond the current administration. The same problems that weigh on growth now will bedevil whoever becomes president: poor infrastructure, a weak regulatory environment, government underspending, an underperforming agricultural sector, the prospect of natural disasters and the impact of climate change. Foreign policy and security challenges such as the situation in the West Philippine Sea (commonly known as the South China Sea), managing changes in U.S.-China relations, modernizing the armed forces, bringing the peace process in Mindanao to a successful conclusion and ending internal insurgencies will also occupy the next president.

     The country's presidential system only permits one term of six years. This term limit pushes presidents to be "legacy builders," striving to implement policies and projects that secure their place in history. Presidents also have to keep a balance between national leaders, whose resources and influence have a direct impact on public policy, and local families and dynasties, whose networks and power can affect elections. With a party system that is prone to defections during elections, and a weak bureaucracy, Philippine politics is highly personal; much depends on the character and ability of the president.

     Policy continuity and political stability are necessary if the Philippines is to achieve middle-income status. Investors, business people, other governments, overseas Filipino workers and the general public must believe the next administration will be steadfast in addressing structural, economic and other social problems, while committing itself to the reforms that have been achieved. The next medium-term development plan should build on the gains made under Aquino, but it must put more emphasis on inclusive economic growth and job creation, and it must further stifle, if not eliminate, corruption. The national security plan must be more nuanced in its approach to global and regional issues.

     The voters' choice of the next president is crucial to the country's direction. Whoever wins must balance the interests of his or her supporters with those of the oligarchy -- local dynasties and political families -- and other centers of political power at the national level, including members of Congress.

     Despite the political, economic and social challenges the country faces, the Philippines is at a point where further reform will allow it to achieve middle-income status. This opportunity should not be wasted.

Julio S. Amador III is deputy director-general of the Foreign Service Institute, the research and training institution of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

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