The Asian Voice

Philippines has right institutions but wrong leaders: Inquirer columnist

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses a press conference after the closing ceremony of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - When the Duterte administration finally relinquishes power, a postmortem analysis of its reign will reveal this major blunder: It failed to understand that the country's problems lie, not in our institutions, but in the leaders who misuse these institutions.

This foretelling of the future arises because President Duterte insists on pushing for a shift to federalism, in advocating the abandonment of the lowest-bid policy in government procurement, and in making it very easy for any president henceforth to wield the fearsome powers of martial law.

It took a mere half-day last week for the President to obtain an overwhelming 240-27 vote in congressional approval for a yearlong extension of martial law in Mindanao, notwithstanding the government's declaration of "total victory" in Marawi City.

In one fell swoop, the bitter lessons of martial rule under Ferdinand Marcos were forgotten. With a muted whimper, the constitutional gains that were achieved and that imposed strict requirements on any resort to martial law all came tumbling down.

With the ease by which martial law has been extended in Mindanao, despite the complete cessation of hostilities in Marawi, what would now stop the President from declaring martial law in the whole country on grounds that the New People's Army conducts military operations in many provinces nationwide?

The Constitution sufficiently provides for a legislative veto against casual resort to martial law, but this power is useless under a docile Congress. We have the right institution but we have the wrong leaders.

The President has also declared that he wants Congress to abolish the law requiring government contracts to be awarded to the lowest bidder.

The President complains that this lowest-bid policy enables corrupt officials to manipulate the bidding process. He says the correct policy should be for the government to "buy the best" goods and services.

But a policy to "buy the best" is not at all in conflict with a lowest-bid policy. There's only the need to ensure that the bid documents will clearly specify superior quality, and that the lowest bid for such quality items will win the bid.

The reason that the government gets inferior-quality products under the lowest-bid rule is this: Bidding officials rig the process.

However, the same corrupt officials will manipulate a "buy the best" bidding process. A "buy the best" policy will be even more prone to corruption because such a standard is subjective and debatable.

We have the right institutional policy on public bidding, but we have the wrong officials in charge of our bidding processes.

Finally, the President insists on changing our unitary form of government to one that is a federation of regions.

The President complains that revenues and economic growth are monopolized by imperial Manila, to the detriment of the provinces. He also advocates federalism for Muslim Mindanao as a means of putting an end to the Moro secessionist movement.

In reality, many impoverished provinces are virtually subsidized by the national government because the internal revenue allotments they receive are more than their own revenue collections.

What has been detrimental to the provinces is the deeply entrenched corruption by local political dynasties. A shift to a federal government will only further strengthen-politically and economically-these dynasties which are the real curse of the provinces.

With regard to Muslim Mindanao, there are the existing political structures and bureaucratic institutions of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

The President gets virtually anything he wants when he bamboozles and curses his way. Why can't he just crank up the ARMM by shaming and removing the corrupt officials in its ranks, overhauling its agencies, infusing billions of pesos in its programs, and supporting principled people who will succeed in its leadership?

We have the right institutions but we have the wrong leaders. Change our leaders, not our institutions.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.

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