Populism and the fiscal crisis

One interesting observation that Rep. Joey Salceda makes in his recent dissection of the country’s fiscal crisis takes the form of a question: “But, why is it that the power sector invites much of our major fiscal follies, from Marcos’ nuke plant (one for the price of two) pushing Aquino to mothball it which then triggers the power crisis that justified Ramos’ lopsided IPPs that then force Arroyo to cap the PPA?”  His answer: “The moral of the PPA cap story is: the people eventually pay for such populist decisions of the government.”

The key word is “populist.”  It is a term that has been used repeatedly in many analyses that try to explain the political roots of our economic problems.  Its connotation is negative, which is ironic since the root word is people. One wonders what its opposite is.  Anti-people?

In the context in which Rep. Salceda uses it, “populist” refers to something that aims to please the people in the short term in order to gain political points, but whose long-term effects may be injurious to their interests. A populist decision therefore is one that is made out of political opportunism, and without regard for its economic and other costs.  This seems like an accurate description of the kind of politics we have had in this country.  Is another kind possible given the nation’s political history and socio-economic situation?

The desired alternative to populist politics, of course, is modern democratic politics where the contest for power takes place within institutional channels and under legitimized and accepted rules.  The Philippines had this system in a formal sense until 1972, even if the vast majority of our people participated in it only in a marginal way. Marcos exploited the people’s resentments against the oligarchy and aspirations to modernity to justify his own version of populist authoritarianism.  His experiment is a replica of many failed initiatives in the Third World, notably in Latin America.

When Cory Aquino took the presidency in 1986 on the wings of a people power uprising, she could not ignore the diverse popular movements that brought her to power.  This was a constituency that was deeply suspicious of politicians.  Even if the wisdom of a nuclear power plant was arguable on technical grounds, the Bataan Nuclear

Power Plant itself was seen as the epitome of all the sins of the Marcos regime.  The new government had little choice but to abandon it.  The only forces more powerful than the popular movements were the international creditor banks that demanded to be paid.  And so we continue to pay them.

Recoiling from the controversies that attended big public projects like the nuclear plant and having little money left to spend, the Aquino government shied away from infrastructure investments.  The result was the power crisis that Cory’s successor, Fidel Ramos, tried to fix through the instant but expensive cure of the “lopsided” Independent Power Producers (IPPs).  The heavy costs of these IPPs began to be felt only after the end of Ramos’s term.  Neither Joseph Estrada, who succeeded him, nor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who took over from Estrada, was prepared to do anything about these obligations beyond re-financing them with more borrowings.

The desire to be popular was particularly strongest with Gloria.  She was insecure about the presidency.  From day one, she sought validation of her entitlement to the position by being elected to her own six-year term.  She became extremely vulnerable to populist decision-making.

Political instability heightens populist pressure.  The May presidential election could have ushered in another phase of uncertainty in our political life.  The scandalous way in which the winners were proclaimed was a provocation to disorder.  Ms Arroyo can thank the opposition for its decision to shift its protest from the streets to the Presidential Electoral Tribunal.  The recent move of the Magdalo mutineers to come forward to apologize for their July 2003 takeover of the Oakwood Apartments in Makati also comes at a right time, as it will have a calming effect on the political scene.

The political scientist Gino Germani explains populism as the result of the uneven integration of the masses into a country’s political life. The masses are activated by the mass media through the spread of modern lifestyles and attitudes and yet could not find adequate selfexpression in the available political structures. The cities, where the resentments and unleashed energies of the economic underclasses are strongest, tend to be the epicenters of populist pressure

In countries like ours marked by stark inequalities in life chances, populist ideology can oscillate between traditional electoral politics and authoritarianism.  Those who ride upon it constitute an amazing variety of characters, says Germani. “Quite different political groups … and the most diverse sectors – intellectuals, modernized workers, professionals and politicians of petty-bourgeois origin, military men, sectors of the old landowning oligarchy in economic and political decline, no less than the most bizarre combinations between them, have tried (sometimes successfully) to base themselves upon this human support in order to achieve their political aims.”

We may rid ourselves of the curse of populism only when the entitlements of the poor to a decent existence are understood and honored as rights by government rather than as personal favors dispensed by politicians.


Comments to <public.lives@gmail.com>