Barriers to reform

President Aquino’s mission for the next six years is startling in its simplicity: To wipe out corruption in order to make government more responsive to the basic problems of the Filipino people—mass poverty, unemployment, poor education, poor health, inadequate living conditions, etc.

No one can argue with the urgent nature of these problems. What sharply differentiates Mr. Aquino’s approach from that of his predecessors is its basic premise that the principal obstacle to solving these problems is corruption. These problems have a deeper structural origin and may require a more complex strategy than a simple anti-corruption drive. Still, I find Mr. Aquino’s focus on governance reform as the starting point of his presidency bold and heroic. It will not be easy, but I hope he succeeds.

As we have seen from day one of this presidency, every effort in the direction of reform is bound to be resisted. The resistance will come from the built-in interests that prefer to run government according to the existing rules of patronage. Corruption is precisely the fuel that drives the system of political patronage. Without the money siphoned off from government, patronage will ground to a halt.

Mr. Aquino will find that the easiest reforms to institute are those that do not involve any substantial change in law or entail much alteration in the budget. Law and money are the two most important media for transmitting political decisions. Some decisions do not require new laws or additional money. The enforcement of the ban against “wang-wangs” (emergency sirens and blinkers) is one example. All it took was for the President himself to follow traffic rules, even if, for security reasons, he could be exempted.

Another is the decision to limit overseas presidential travel. This will significantly reduce the abuse of foreign travel by other public officials. These are policy actions that produce immediate impact, yet do not require much to make them effective. There are many more of such initiatives whose impact rests solely on the sheer power of presidential example. They are important, but may not go very far in changing the system itself. In contrast, a different treatment awaits the slightest action if it threatens the unstated norms of the existing political system. Every decision will be opposed on either legal or financial grounds. The critics will say: It’s against the law, or it’s a waste of resources. Predictably, both reasons have been invoked by those who object to the formation of a truth commission.

We hear the same objections in the case of the “midnight appointments.” President Aquino recently issued an executive order nullifying the appointments that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo made during the last days of her presidency, in violation of the ban on midnight appointments. As expected, allies of the former president are urging the beneficiaries of these appointments to bring their case to the Supreme Court, confident that the justices, themselves appointees of the former president, will see it their way.

The offices at stake here are not career positions in the professional bureaucracy. They are mostly seats in government corporate boards and attached agencies. After the crisis sparked by the “Hello Garci” tapes, which put her presidency in grave peril, Ms Arroyo moved to keep a tight grip on these government boards by appointing their members in an “acting capacity.” She “regularized” these appointments only when her time as president was ending. That is the reason there are so many of them.

The existing system places enormous discretionary funds and powers at the disposal of the president, so that, more than anyone else, he could play the patronage game. He is expected, however, to share these funds and positions with other politicians. More important, he must not do anything to threaten the system—like stopping the drain of public funds, or professionalizing recruitment into government positions, or preventing the powerful (who contribute the biggest election funds) from making money the usual way.

Because of the instant advantages it offers, there is no incentive to fight the system. A president who decides to be a transformative leader must be prepared to risk all the political capital he has. The fight against systemic corruption, if it is to be sustainable, must assume the single-mindedness of a crusade. He who dares to lead it must be unassailable in all his actions. The people he chooses must equally be beyond question in their personal and public lives. The public is not above expressing malicious glee when reformers stumble and fail.

To my mind, however, the toughest challenge of all is how to resist taking the easy opportunities routinely made available to wielders of power. These opportunities typically appear as harmless occasions to do small favors for friends, relatives or people who have helped elect the new government. Similarly, sometimes even an ethical public official will help himself to a few perks, rationalizing these as just compensation for the hard work he does.

Subordinates who see this begin to regard it as the norm. If someone justifies an act by saying there is nothing illegal about it, it is a sure sign there is something wrong with it. Michel Foucault offered this advice to revolutionaries: “Beware of the fascist in each one of us.” To reformists, he might have said: Beware of the opportunist lurking inside us.