16 April 2007

If public office were just today's phone line

IN NOVEMBER 1992, then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew addressed the premier gathering of Philippine businessmen, including newly elected President Fidel V. Ramos, and quipped that "98 percent of Filipinos are waiting for a phone line, and the other two percent are waiting for a dial tone."

That incident, I think, provided FVR the impetus to liberalize the telecommunications industry, so that by 2002, there was already a glut in the fixed line business. A landline connection became accessible, even for peripheral communities like Grandview which is 9 kms away from the city center, and my Sagrada hometown before that, which is 4 kms away from the Pili poblacion.

The rise of wireless telephony exacerbated the woes of fixed line operators like BayanTel, but greatly benefited the Filipino consumer. Last December, penetration rate reached 45% -- largely unexpected when Manny Pangilinan took over PLDT and Smart about three years back; the conventional thinking then was that 35% or thereabouts represents the upper limit of the Philippine market.

Now, imagine if the same singlemindedness were trained on the constitutional provision prohibiting political dynasties, in the process leveling the playing field and lowering the barriers to public office. Do you think it will encourage greater interest in politics, which Manolo feared is losing out to the so-called "cult of the market"?

It will not be the cure-all magic bullet, but I think it is a necessary first step towards Randy David's proposal for campaign finance reform -- which is even more bloody controversial -- and Urbano de la Cruz's redesign of our democracy that should eventually tie in the loose ends.

Popular opinion is against the continuing proliferation of political dynasties, as my previous post indicated. The intent of the framers of the 1987 Constitution is clear for all to see; the modernistic aspiration is self-evident in that particular provision.

The problem is they equivocated and left the definition of what a political dynasty is, and its enabling law, to Congress which is dominated by conservative dynasts. It is just like mandating that having a progressive telecommunications system connecting every nook and cranny of the archipelago is in the national interest, yet maintaining the old PLDT's monopolistic stranglehold on the industry.

Jose Sison's column today in the Philippine Star puts Camarines Sur -- with five competing families: the Houses of Andaya (1st district), Roco and Villafuerte (2nd district + provincial capitol), Fuentebella (3rd district) and Alfelor (4th district) -- at a better footing compared to other provinces where a single clan has dominated public life for many generations.

But that is far from reassuring: The internecine conflict within the House of Villafuerte (LRV vs. nephew Jesse Robredo, and lately LRV vs. son LRay) is currently providing a semblance of free-market competition that cuts both ways: on the one hand, it has blessed Naga with a modernistic leader in Robredo; but on the other, it has resulted in opportunity costs arising from the lack of critical collaboration between the city and the provincial governments (which I will discuss in a future post).

But who knows what the future will hold, with status quo being maintained by an increasingly conservative, traditional Congress that, by its nature, cannot be expected to go up against its members' vested interest?

The disillusioned local elite will continue to tune out, opting to let the market, here but more and more outside local shores, fulfill their aspirations and the economic freedom they bring. The poor, on the other hand, powerless but not stupid, will continue their triennial raid on state resources, and the politicians' electoral kitty fattened by illicit money, because that is the time they -- and their vote -- are at their most valuable. The winning overlords will then make use of the interregnum to prepare for the next political wars.

Political economy can actually explain much of what is happening. Without a more level playing field, this vicious cycle will be difficult to break because our politics operates like inefficient natural monopolies.