September 17, 2004

Leadership in crisis

It didn't look good, whatever the official reason given.

First, there was National Treasurer Mina Figueroa tendering her resignation at a time when there is a fiscal crisis to attend to. Then followed Napocor (National Power Corp.) president Roger Murga, the man GMA handpicked to head the government corporation that is in debt to the tune of PhP1.3 trillion, accounting for an astounding 42% of national government debt.

Both came from the private business sector, highly recommended as qualified for the jobs they were to undertake, and presumably aware that they were not being asked to join a picnic considering the cash-strapped, debt-saddled state of the government.

It is not at all surprising that Figueroa finally realized her own personal budget deficit was a more pressing matter than that of the government and that her time and effort should be worth at least as much as that of the GOCC (government-owned and -controlled corporations) fat cats who could give themselves "unconscionably high" salaries and perks while their institutions floundered.

But the persistent rumors about "policy differences" with Department of Finance officials tainted what could otherwise be accepted as a logical personal decision. And now the revelation that government, its coffers practically empty, lost more than PhP1 billion from the ill-timed $1-billion bond float the Finance department offered on behalf of Napocor. That, it is bruited about, is the real reason behind Figueroa's decision to quit.

Perhaps Murga, just two years into the saddle as Napocor chief, saw it coming too. The gathering storm of protest as people feel the double whammy of higher power rates combined with higher taxes. Already, legislators are threatening to dig deeper into the dire state of Napocor's finances, including the issue of how its officers continue to enjoy fat salaries while the rest of the corporation bleeds and the people, in turn, are being made to cough up blood to keep it afloat.

But wasn't it a political decision of President Arroyo to slash the purchased power adjustment, or PPA, charged by Napocor to electricity consumers at a time when her popularity rating was at an extreme low? Arroyo must have known that would translate into a pileup of debt that someone, at some point, would have to pay.

And since she was the one who asked for the PPA cutback, that meant her government would find the way to pay for the huge loss in Napocor's revenue. Surely that part of the problem cannot be blamed on Mr. Murga alone. But with the people's anger coming to a boil and Malacañang obviously looking for scapegoats, we can understand why the Napocor chief wouldn't want to be around when all hell breaks loose.

Now if indeed the spate of resignations is merely coincidental as Malacañang claims, then it could be the meanest trick fate has played on this administration. For the public perception is that these high-level government functionaries who know the real score have lost confidence in the political leadership of Mrs. Arroyo. Certainly the resignations do not help to build public confidence in her government which is essential if it is to lead us through these hard times.

Unfortunately, President Arroyo is sorely lacking in both credibility and the high moral ground with which to call upon the people to sacrifice for the common good. Wasn't it just some months ago, during the campaign period, that her administration was spending public money like there was no tomorrow? There was no talk then among her Cabinet officials and her rah-rah boys and girls about a looming fiscal crisis. The Opposition accused Mrs. Arroyo of electioneering, but the GMA camp insisted she was merely doing what a President ought to be doing, and that is, engaging in "governance."

As late as her State-of-the-Nation address in July, even as she drew attention to the government's worsening fiscal and debt problems calling the deficit "our most urgent problem," she papered this over with the launch of an ambitious 10-point program promising the people food on the table, decent jobs, livelihood, housing, education and health care within her six-year term of office. She hardly gave any indication that things would probably get worse before these got any better.

And then that state visit cum family outing to China with the entire Macapagal-Arroyo household in tow, grandchildren and yaya included. President Arroyo just threw away whatever credibility she retained about imposing austerity measures -- not only on government, but even on ordinary households -- by flouting her very own pronouncements and making a mockery of her own appeals for sacrifice.

While there is unanimity in acknowledging the need for a political leadership with the will to carry out drastic measures to tide us over, if not resolve, this current crisis, we must ask ourselves, what kind of political leadership?

We contend that such a leadership must first of all have the trust and confidence of the people. The people must be assured that whatever sacrifice they make will accrue to the benefit of the greater majority, if not to the entire nation. Clearly, the Arroyo government fails to measure up to this critical standard.

How much more then on its capacity to uphold the national interest, to stand up to foreign policy impositions whether these be economic, political or military. For starters, can President Arroyo move to renegotiate onerous debts and contracts? Can she put the nation's survival ahead of paying blood money to the foreign multinational banks and kowtowing to the international financial institutions?

How much more on its commitment to the democratic process? Can Mrs. Arroyo deal judiciously with the mass protests and the general social restiveness that her call for new taxes, higher rates for public utilities and more belt tightening measures will surely generate? Can she restrain the urge to resort to politically repressive measures to pre-empt and contain the people's impending outrage?

Sadly, the first three years of the Arroyo government does not give us reason to be optimistic.

Sept. 17-18, 2004


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