Interesting article on political and policy change in the Philippines

Business World Online 1/3/2011


Posted on February 28, 2011 09:00:30 PM

Fence Sitter — By A. R. Samson

Expatriate guide to Philippine politics

Part of the frustration of businessmen, especially expatriates, with politicians stems from a preconceived idea of what politics should be. The first step in positively influencing the political process or suggesting a new title for the leader, if that is indeed possible, is to understand what politics as practiced here is really about.

We do not have party politics. Ideologies or political platforms seldom drive action. There is no conservative party that promotes small government and a strong private sector, making life easier for business, including those putting up a new one. The preferred method of influencing change is not persuasion or the strength of arguments. Often, it is media pressure or the more direct financial approach used to gather legislative support, silence critics, derail an investigation, spark support or promote an advocacy. When word that certain signatories of a legislative motion have withdrawn, the first question to ask is — which bank?

The absence of party politics facilitates switching to the new dominant group. This unfortunately also promotes crony appointments to government positions, by simply surrounding oneself with people one knows rather than what these people know. Loyalty then trumps competence, though admittedly allies need not be lightweights. Although one can also propose that lightweights should not be allies.

We do not have think tanks promoting a particular ideological view and how it impacts policies. What we have are economic forecasting groups, polling organizations, investigative reporters, and political analysts. These are always available for interviews and media exposure. They provide a biased point of view packaged in articulate and research-based talking points. Their perspective is predictable, as well as their pet peeves.

Expediency or self-interest often determines political action. Thus, attempts at appealing to a politician’s nationalism are futile, unless this accidentally coincides with his own self-interest. Still, even selfish moves have to be cloaked with the rhetoric of democratic ideals, the rule of the majority, due process of law, and sundry sanctimonious claims to putting the country above the politician’s self. Populist tendencies like price controls and reinstatement of separated employees are almost automatically embraced.

There are a few major players in the political scene and not all of them are politicians. Some are law firms, business groups, big media or all three. Because political parties are porous, it follows that groupings too follow this trend. Once these movers and shakers are identified along with their interests, it is a simple matter of getting out of their way or riding their wave. These groupings change every six years, although the last one went a bit longer.

Politics is a staple of daily news. With the rise of the 24/7 news channels, with two new ones joining the fray, this journalistic obsession with politics should only accelerate. Also, the reason big media are obsessed with politics as news is that they consider themselves as players. The small or truly independent media including local bureaus of international ones can be dragged too into the spin zone of politics from an overpowering herd mentality.

The working press tends to be anti-establishment. Thus, stories that discomfit a capitalist, like presenting informal settlers as victims in a soap opera (guess who the villain is) or stoking the environmental fires against mining operations, become daily fare. This orientation makes media practitioners seem naturally sympathetic to unions, rebels, misguided elements, spinners of conspiracy theories, street marchers no matter how few, beleaguered mayors, and anyone that can provide a sound bite that rattles the dinner plates.

The only refuge for businessmen or any interest group for that matter is to find the players whose interests coincide with theirs. While this perpetuates personality politics, it mobilizes cause-oriented groups, including those who advocate private enterprise and the wisdom of markets, to plunge gamely into politics if they mean to change things or protect the status quo. Some of these actually run for office and make it, though never for the top spot.

While the sitting president enjoys high approval ratings in spite of hecklers wanting him to work longer hours and make faster decisions, it does not mean he can effect reform as quickly as he wants. The politics of business or the business of politics have not changed all that much; only the players have. Still, the country seems to be doing better under its new CEO…maybe precisely because he is doing less than his predecessor.

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