Government News Analysis

The poverty of politics

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo and "laylayanomics"
Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo and "laylayanomics"

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo has come up with a new buzzword: “laylayanomics” – meaning economic policies that support those on society’s fringes. It marks her latest attempt to gain some sort of political relevance with a population that’s virtually disowned her. She must believe that catchy term will magically undo all the damage she’s caused over the past 12 months of working within President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration while trying to bring the president down.

Robredo coined the term while ‘supporting’ a government initiative – yes you read that right; the woman who vowed to work inside the government as an opposition to it was actually supporting the government. Last Friday, at the launch of the 2017-2022 Philippine Development Plan (PDP) in Pasay City she praised programmes being pursued by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) of which Duterte is the Board chairman.

Furthermore, this plan is Duterte driven and bears his imprimatur – by his executive order all government departments, agencies and local government units have been ordered to align their budgets and programmes with it. As far as Duterte is concerned this plan is written in stone.

In endorsing the PDP – an initiative that’s highly geared to poverty-reduction among the country’s rural poor – Robredo described it as an “obvious effort to create inclusivity and focus on the last, the least and the lost. (Those) who, in traditional economics, will have to wait for the last trickle of development to taste the rewards of a growing economy”.

She pointed out: “As you can probably tell, the kind of economics that gives us hope is what I call ‘laylayanomics.’ In my view, those in the fringes of society deserve more of our effort and time than any other member of our society”.

That’s all very well and good, but where was laylayanomics during the Liberal Party administration of her mentors – former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino and his failed heir-apparent, Mar Roxas? How come it didn’t deserve more of their effort and more of their time? The problem with that political term – despite its economic gains – was that there was no noticeable trickle-down benefit to the country’s poor and marginalised. They didn’t taste any of the rewards of a growing economy.

It’s good that Robredo’s adding her weight to the PDP, but how come she failed to highlight the poor’s plight during the last three year’s of Aquino’s government when she was a Liberal Party member of the House of Representatives? It was glaringly obvious then to anyone who was prepared to see it. Certainly to someone who’s supposed to be so attuned to the economic misery of the poor.

Surely that would have been a good time to bring this up, when little, if anything was being done to resolve the problem – rather than now when it’s finally being addressed. But, even if it had entered her head, might she have judged it politically unwise to do so? Would she have got Aquino’s and Roxas’s blessing to be the party’s VP candidate, for example, if she’d openly criticised the party’s economic policy – a policy that was being acclaimed universally at the time?

We kept hearing about how inflation was being kept in check; low interest rates maintained. We witnessed the euphoria of commentators when public figures – albeit none from the ruling Liberal Party – were brought down and punished for corruption; when foreign banks were allowed to enter the Philippine market; when ratings agencies upgraded the country’s credit rating, and when economic growth hit 6.9% in the last quarter of this administration’s existence.

And there’s no question, these were achievements and should be praised. But what about the poor? How did they benefit? Aquino may have thrown off the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ image as far as the wider economy was concerned, but in the countryside, the economy there and those who subsisted from it remained anything but healthy. In all the excitement over economic growth and proposed reforms and the booming business process outsourcing industry, they – once more – fell through the cracks.

In short, the laylayan missed out completely. By the end of Aquino’s term the country’s rural poverty rate stood at 30%; 21.6% nationwide – hardly a cause for celebration. The fact is farmers, fishermen and children – the demographic of the traditionally impoverished – were no better off under Aquino than they had been under the previous administration and the income gap actually increased.

In the greater scheme of things, when financial analysts and economists were writing up their country reports on the Philippines, the plight of the countryside got little coverage – the story wasn’t sexy. But there was some coverage.

The London-based analysis provider, the Economist Intelligence Unit, for example, stated in a 2015 report entitled ‘An Outlook for Key Emerging Asian Markets,’ that the Philippines would remain “marked by wide inequalities of income, and the disparity between the richest and poorest households would stay particularly acute”.

The report added that a large part of the Filipino population would stay in poverty. Despite the much-publicised economic gains achieved by the Aquino administration, poor Filipino families would not feel the gains. It talked about the “disparity between the richest and poorest households” and “wide inequalities of income”, adding that by 2019, “the Philippines will remain one of Southeast Asia’s poorest economies with a lower level of GDP (gross domestic product) per head than the majority of the region’s other major economies”.

That’s the actual background of how the laylayan fared in the Aquino years. It’s not like they were forgotten, it’s more like in all the elation they were overlooked. Everything else seemed to take precedence over the poor getting a share of the pie. What Duterte is setting out to do by implementing the PDP is to make sure this time they get the first piece of it.

And so back to Robredo. Since becoming VP, she’s openly campaigned against Duterte’s policies – even on the streets. Establishing her credentials as the leader of the opposition, she sowed division within the Cabinet which led to her dismissal from Cabinet meetings; she’s been associated with attempts to undermine Duterte, openly criticising him in both the local and international media; she’s defamed the president and the country over his War on Drugs alluding to his alleged links to extrajudicial killings. The list seems endless.

Robredo’s political credibility finally imploded when she dragged the country and its president through the mud with a six-minute video to a fringe meeting of the United Nations in Vienna, Austria in March – a video that went viral and confiscated every last coin of her political currency. Her clumsy adolescent answer to those offended by what she’d done – that she was exercising her right to free speech – didn’t help either.

So why the sudden change of heart? The simple answer to that is that it isn’t; it’s a change of tactics. Liberal leopards like Leni don’t change their spots. Robredo, who’s proved to be naïve and artless when it comes to the game of politics, has made one major miscalculation after another in attempting to switch popularity from Duterte to herself.

And the upshot of her political machinations is that she’s become detested by the electorate. A first quarter 2017 survey by the Social Weather Stations polling agency gave her a net trust rating of 30% – a drop of 15% from the previous quarter. Correspondingly, Duterte’s trust rating in a Pulse Asia survey carried out during he same period was 83%.

In the shallow age of the sound-bite, to Robredo her buzzword might look like a magic bullet – that’s what she’s banking on – but given her utter lack of currency with the Filipino masses it’s more likely to be seen as a cynical attempt at a political makeover aimed at seducing the populace into liking her; into taking her seriously; into believing she’s changed; perhaps, into making them think that one day she could lead the nation. She may also be hoping that she’ll be given some special function in the government’s anti-poverty effort – another likely miscalculation if that’s the case.

But she said this: “Such a plan as this will never change lives on the ground if our implementing agencies are not able to work together, work fast and work with flexibility. We need leadership to create an effective convergence strategy. This way, everybody is focused on the same metrics and results, taking out fluff, political noise and other distractions. Poverty will not take care of itself; we need to actively fight it by working together”.

Ignoring the irony of her plea to take out the “political noise and other distractions” – two things she’s been injecting into the public forum for the past year – that to us sounds like a pitch for a job.

This then has all the feeling of yet one more political sham – we don’t have enough of those in the Philippines apparently. It’s an attempt by Robredo – a woman wandering aimlessly in the political wilderness – to find a star to which to hitch her broken wagon.

And what better star than the plight of the poor?  This is an enduring, irresistible and emotive cause that politicians in the Philippines have used for generations to provide a path to Congress and higher office.  Everyone in the political system – whatever their party; whatever their rank – is a champion of the country’s pitifully poor and wretchedly marginalised. What we can’t work out is, given all that, how come the Philippines still has so many people living in poverty? Could it be that the underlying poverty here is actually the poverty of politics?

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