On Philippine President Aquino's Midterm Year
Deeper reforms needed to curb inequality
As President Benigno Simeon Aquino III moves past the midterm mark of his administration and begins his fourth year in office, deeper, broader and transformative reforms are needed if the people are to continue with their travel along the "straight path." While the past three years have certainly yielded victories and gains for the people, particularly in the government's anti-corruption efforts, it has also shown the limits of a good governance paradigm if unaccompanied by structural reforms addressing critical issues of poverty and inequality.
President Aquino has already proven that he is different and even better than Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The fact that the president continues to enjoy enormous political capital proves this. As such, whereas the first three years of "daang matuwid" had its understandable share of uneven execution despite the good intentions, now that President Aquino has reached the halfway point and started to fill the bases, people are expecting that his government will make more decisive steps to bring more and bolder reforms to where they matter most. It is time to hit home runs.
The chain is only as strong as its weakest link
But even in its vaunted anti-corruption and reform-minded governance agenda, the Aquino administration's score card registers hits and misses. The hits outnumber the misses, to be sure, and there are few images more compelling than that of a fallen corrupt Chief Justice listening to judgment delivered to him, but the misses are significant enough to be worrisome. It is not enough for President Aquino to be clean and unblemished by corruption – it is imperative that he mobilize his political capital to ensure that there are no bad apples in any branch of government sabotaging the reforms he installed. The P 10B pork barrel scandal highlights serious flaws in existing mechanisms of distribution, audit and allocation of pork, creating opportunities for abuse by high-ranking legislators. The OFW sex-for-flight scandal is another kind of predatory behavior within the ranks of government.
Recently, the Commission on Human Rights has detailed many instances of brutality by policemen. These "public servants" are saboteurs of the reform agenda and derail whatever headway has been made by President Aquino. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. While we believe that the President has good men and women working for the country and the culture of corruption and impunity that has set our country back has been mitigated, this administration must act with dispatch to flush out the weak links from the system and exact justice, when necessary. This must go hand in hand with the realization of anti-corruption policies like the FoI bill to ensure the people's right to a more transparent and accountable government.
Trapo politics and poverty: a cynical symbiosis
The recently-concluded elections of May 2013 -- while illumined by a few iconic victories such as that of Rep. Kaka Bag-ao in Dinagat Islands and Rep. Leni Robredo in Naga City -- in large part signals the return en masse of trapo politics, both at the national level and in the local level. The different forms of patronage politics employed by the trapos and political dynasties, and the degree to which they have succeeded in getting elected, only shows how any reform agenda, if unsupported by structural changes from below, remains vulnerable to the aggression of predatory and opportunistic politics that prey on poverty and desperation at the margins. In the end, this brand of politics which feeds on poverty to insinuate itself into governance structures, creates even deeper poverty and leaves very little areas for reforms to bloom.
The President only has three years left to rectify this and ensure that he leaves a legacy of felt and meaningful changes that go beyond the narrative of people power. He claims that the Philippine economy is faring well under his watch, but this growth is not meaningful if it is not brought to where it matters. Unless we see clear and decisive steps in the area of poverty reduction and grassroots democratization, the coming 2016 elections will be a money war and this administration can expect to be overwhelmed by the money and mettle of traditional politicians now lying in wait but ready to come back. It is through squarely confronting the root causes of poverty that the poor can be made engaged citizens of their country, exercising their political agency.
Strategic anti-poverty programs, not just CCT
While Akbayan remains supportive of the government's Conditional Cash Transfer program as a stop-gap measure for the poorest of the poor, and which we hope will shift to domestic sources of funding; we call on President Aquino to work towards the realization of strategic and broader anti-poverty programs with more transformative effects in their lived realities. Agrarian reform under the CARPER Law needs to be completed by 2014 and the government must marshal the entire state machinery, not just the Department of Agrarian Reform, to this end. The coconut levy must also be used as a viable resource to lift coconut farmers from destitution. The issues of the urban poor, particularly with respect to decent housing for informal settlers, job generation for the unemployed, deserve critical attention, particularly in light of a burgeoning urban population and ecological pressures. The President must likewise remain a champion in the defense of the Reproductive Health Law and build on the success of its passage for the implementation of a universal health care program as one of the flagship social protection and health measures of this administration.
New economic model
However, the biggest challenge in the final three years of the Aquino administration is to lay a new economic paradigm for sustained development. The centerpiece of which must be the generation of jobs, the radical reduction of inequality, and the reinvigoration of our agriculture and industry after decades of damage by neoliberal policies. Continuous adherence to the old neoliberal model will ultimately erode the gains that the administration has made in the first three years, and could create new and more complex cases of social discord. This is particularly true in the case of Mindanao where President Aquino has made important steps in the pursuit of peace. The Aquino government must not bargain peace in exchange for a discredited economic paradigm, which while provides growth, benefits only a few and never in actuality breaks through the barriers separating the poor from the elite.
Certainly, uneven distribution of wealth and resources remains to be the biggest problem faced by this country and while this is a great challenge for any government to undertake, this presidency also benefits from great opportunities. The President still enjoys a popular mandate, and that political capital can be used to mobilize institutions and shepherd them towards a chosen path of reform. We look forward to the President to exercise the same political will and determination he has shown against corruption in the economic front. Now is the time to set the country on the path of a new and progressive macroeconomic model.
Akbayan as a champion of the people first, and as partner of the President second
Akbayan affirms its commitment as a partner of the President in his goals towards good governance and reform. But before it has become a partner of any President, it is first and foremost a champion of the people and it will walk beside them as it calls on the current dispensation to deliver on its commitments and step up its game, particularly in the area of basic sector issues where its track record Needs to demonstrate more empathy and responsiveness. President Aquino must realize that his vulnerable constituencies are wider than he may think, and that at the end of the day, a leader is' measured not by what he did for those first in line or in the secure middle, but by the degree to which he changed the lives of the weakest of the weak.
Agrarian reform in Aquino's midterm year: Dim, slow and unsatisfactory
As President Benigno Simeon Aquino III is set to deliver his fourth state of the nation address (SONA) to mark his government's midterm year, Akbayan Partylist and its partner peasant and other rural organizations deem it necessary that the true state of agrarian reform should be reported to the Filipino people. If there is one issue wherein President Aquino's resolve and overall performance will be measured, it is how he will conclude the government's agrarian reform program which started and subsequently faltered under his mother's period in office. Expectations are high that where his mother fell short on her promise to the millions of toiling Filipino farmers, President Aquino will finally fulfill.
Sadly, three years into the government of President Aquino, the prospect of completing CARPER is very dim, with the distribution of land extremely slow and the performance of the Department of Agrarian Reform outright unsatisfactory. CARPER runs the risk of ending in a manner similar to the first Aquino government—with the large landholdings undistributed and Filipino farmers ending up with nothing.
Current data pegs the total area of agricultural lands that have yet to be distributed at around 900,000 hectares. This means that DAR has the gargantuan task of distributing at least 82,000 hectares every month until 2014. DAR's performance falls dismally short of this target. In 2010, DAR was only able to distribute 107,180 hectares of land, which is only 53.6% of the original target land distribution of 200,000 for the year, and 76.28% of the calibrated target of 140,515 hectares. In 2011 and 2012, Sec. Delos Reyes reported that it distributed 111,889 and 92,129 hectares of land, respectively. However, DAREA officials are contesting his report by cross-referring these with actual figures on compensable holdings from the Land Bank of the Philippines. In fact, a brief comparison of total land distributions per year shows that the Aquino administration has the lowest average annual land distribution rate.
DAR's dismal performance
Aside from such snail-paced rate of distribution by DAR, the agency has yet to remove various administrative orders which only serve to undermine the implementation of agrarian reform. Among them are section 28 of DAR AO 7 which contains provisions prohibiting government from taking possession of the land until landowner protest or exemption applications are fully resolved by the Office of the President instead by DAR and sections 16 and 29 of DAR AO 9 which favor the landlords' protests and petitions for exemption over land distribution.
DAR contends that the slow pace of distribution is a result of the remaining undistributed lands which consist mostly of huge landlord estates and haciendas. More so, DAR's contention that while CARPER extended agrarian reform up until 2014, the law provides that actual land distribution can still proceed beyond so long as notices of coverage are issued before 2014. This is DAR's interpretation alone and is tantamount to capitulation as it frees landlords from pressure imposed by the law. DAR should not make excuses for its awfully dismal performance.
Replicate Hacienda Luisita distribution; break apart other remaining big landholdings
As such, while we warmly welcome DAR's initiation of the distribution process of Hacienda Luisita as a breakthrough in agrarian reform, we challenge the department to break apart and distribute all the remaining haciendas and other big landholdings on or before 2014. While the Hacienda Luisita is the symbol of the struggle for agrarian reform, there are more haciendas to be seized from the hands of landlords. Hacienda Luisita must be the catalyst for the government to complete CARPER by 2014.
President Aquino has already given his commitment to finish agrarian reform. But we would like to once again impress upon President Aquino why he has to successfully conclude agrarian reform for three reasons. First, it is a matter of social justice. President Aquino in his inauguration speech promised "justice for all." It would be the height of irony that farmers, who represent one of the most oppressed and neglected sectors of our society, would be denied such under CARPER. Second, it is his mandate and duty. Under RA 9700 or the CARPER law, President Aquino must distribute all CARP-able lands by 2014. Third, completion of agrarian reform is one of the best ways for the administration to lay down the ground for equitable growth in the agricultural sector and provide a solid foundation for real national development.
Marshal the entire state machinery for agrarian reform
If President Aquino is serious in fulfilling such a promise, he has no option but to exert the full weight of the government in achieving this. Akbayan Partylist and its affiliate peasant and rural organizations look forward to President Aquino to make a truthful assessment of agrarian reform under his midterm year. We believe that the success or failure of agrarian reform will depend greatly on the actions which President Aquino will take in the coming months. The coming State of the Nation Address is a crucial moment where we expect the President not only to present an honest review of the pace of the distribution of agricultural lands to farmers, but also to marshal the entire state machinery to complete CARPER by 2014.
Particularly, we hope President Aquino will make strong pronouncements to ensure the complete issuance of all notices of coverage and memorandum of valuation for lands covered by CARP/CARPER. These initial steps in the entire process of land distribution are needed to ensure that the present backlog of farmlands does not balloon further.
Second, President Aquino must guarantee the installation of all farmer beneficiaries through the support of all relevant agencies such as the Commission on Human Rights. Moreover, being the commander-in-chief, President Aquino must mobilize all security forces to act as the guardian of Filipino farmers as they help thwart the landlords' efforts to employ violence to counter land distribution.
Third, the government must work under a full compulsory acquisition mode.
Fourth, DAR must immediately revoke the administrative orders that serve as an impediment to the efficient implementation of agrarian reform.
Fifth, President Aquino must convene the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) to coordinate the implementation of agrarian reform and ensure that there is a comprehensive inter-agency cooperation on the matter of agrarian reform.
Sixth, Congress must also convene the Congressional Oversight Committee on Agrarian Reform (COCAR) composed of both members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to give a full appraisal of the current agrarian reform program.
Time is running out
Time is running out. Of all people, President Aquino should know this. We hope that the coming days and weeks will see a marked difference in the implementation of agrarian reform. While the challenge at hand has become more complex and difficult, it is not insurmountable. The same brand of political will exercised by President Aquino in other reform measures must be wielded with respect to agrarian reform. The first Aquino administration failed on its promise to fulfill agrarian reform. The second Aquino government must not follow the same path. President Aquino must not fail the Filipino farmers.