Manuel Mogato, Reuters
MANILA, Philippines – The question of whether deposed Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos should be buried in a cemetery for national heroes is one President Benigno Aquino III feels he cannot make for the nation that elected him to lead it.
So instead, people can SMS their opinion on where Marcos should be buried, like voting for an American Idol contestant, to help decide the government’s position. And it’s not the only decision Aquino seems to be having trouble making.
A reluctant president who won office in a landslide last year, Aquino has never really got out of campaign mode, fixated on pursuing the former administration and talking of major reforms without yet delivering a substantive agenda.
The danger is that this becomes yet another lost opportunity for the Southeast Asian nation, as investors’ initial optimism on Aquino fades and his main political strength of high personal support weakens.
The government is looking to raise billions of dollars to upgrade infrastructure around the nation of more than 7,000 islands, and says it will make the country more attractive to foreign investors, but details are yet to be fully explained.
“Aquino never really seems willing to expend any political capital on what he believes in or claims to stand for,” said Scott Harrison, managing director of risk consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments.
“Whether this is apathy or just another manifestation of his laziness, aversion to work and the rough-and-tumble of politics remains to be seen,” he said, although he did credit Aquino for instituting some ethics in governance.
The stakes are high. Asian Development Bank data shows foreign direct investment in the Philippines last year trailed well behind neighbors Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Weak employment and productivity growth means the country relies on exporting workers overseas, whose remitted income accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product. It also means poverty levels are rising, an anomaly in booming Asia.
The country ranks below most Southeast Asian countries, its main competitors for investment funds, on measures such as competitiveness, ease of doing business and corruption
“Against this backdrop, one key policy challenge is for the government to sustain the higher level of investor confidence built up last year by pushing ahead with policy and governance reforms,” the ADB said in a report last month.
“Another is to raise state revenue so as to fund the social development and infrastructure programs required to reduce poverty and underpin a stronger private sector.”
Aquino is limited to a single, six-year term. He was elected in May 2010 and took office at the end of June.
But it wasn’t until February that a committee to plan the government’s agenda and priorities bills over its term met – and the eventual list did not include bills Aquino had championed, including reproductive health and freedom of information.
“Aquino wanted to do a lot of things, but he has not done anything to carry out these things,” said Earl Parreno, analyst of Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms.
“Now is the time for action, and yet the people has not seen anything concrete from his government. There’s a growing public perception that nothing has changed from the past administration to his government.”
Aquino has been dogged in his campaign to investigate his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and has made some headway with the resignation of the ombudsman, which will allow him to appoint his own graft investigator.
But he seems to have backtracked or lost focus on other issues, and his public opinion ratings have fallen.
Apart from the budget, no major legislation has passed. Each week since July, tax evaders have been named at a weekly press conference, but so far only seven of 45 complaints have made it to court — and no trials have begun.
Last November, Aquino told a conference of potential investors the government would put in place mechanisms to protect their contracts in infrastructure projects, which the government planned to put out from tender from early 2011.
Six months later, no contracts have been awarded, and there has been no legislation to improve protection against regulatory risk – and so foreign investors remain wary for now.
Doubts are also emerging locally. Aquino’s purchase of a second-hand Porsche drew criticism from nearly half of people in an opinion poll, even though he used his own money to buy it.
His poll ratings on areas such as managing the economy, fighting crime and reducing poverty have all fallen, suggesting a broader discontent with his administration.
There could be some change coming. His unsuccessful running mate last year, Mar Roxas, can now join the administration after the expiry last week of the one-year prohibition of losing candidates being appointed to government jobs.
Roxas, an experienced operator who has served as a minister under two presidents, could become Aquino’s chief of staff and troubleshooter, local media report. That could provide Aquino the political smarts he needs to achieve his goals.
“Aquino may not be doing anything wrong, but he has also not done anything good,” said Bobby Evangelista, a cigarette vendor in Manila’s business district. “I haven’t seen any change at all. We remain poor and he has a new car.”