Yearender: Decisions to define Aquino, economy in 2014

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Monday, December 30, 2013

MANILA -- Calamities, including the biggest storm to hit the world in recent memory, and political noise brought by fresh allegations of corruption of public funds marked the passing of 2013.

The year showed President Benigno Aquino III was not beyond reproach, receiving criticisms for his government’s slow delivery of aid to victims of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), which flattened communities in the Visayas in November.

His anti-corruption agenda was also found wanting and selective since most of the lawmakers facing plunder and malversation complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman for alleged misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) are members of the opposition.

But Aquino, whose ticket to the presidency in 2010 was his illustrious surname and squeaky clean image, has withstood the tests in his three-and-a-half year stay in Malacañang.

In fact, he can say goodbye to 2013 with a smile as Filipinos gave him a +55 satisfaction rating, considered “very good” by independent pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS).

Long political honeymoon? Check. But can he extend it to 2014 when rehabilitation of calamity-stricken areas is expected to take shape?

How would the President face the effects of the unconstitutionality of PDAF and the hanging fate of the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) on his political influence?

Political observers agree that it will all boil down to Aquino’s approach to the challenges before him.

DAP’s constitutionality is under question for allegedly using taxpayers’ money without a law that sanctions its disbursements and for passing off as savings the funds coming from slow-moving projects.

It was allegedly used to clinch congressional support for the ouster of then Chief Justice Renato Corona in May 2012. While Malacañang denied it was a bribe, Aquino admitted a part of the multi-billion peso fund went to infrastructure projects identified by legislators.

“If the Supreme Court declares the creation of ‘savings’ illegal, the DAP as unconstitutional and requires line-item budgeting, then 2014 will be a year characterized by redefinition of Executive-Legislative balance of power,” said University of the Philippines (UP) public administration professor Prospero de Vera.

This means Aquino has to find new ways of getting support from Congress for his legislative agenda after the SC nullified the PDAF system where legislators had the say in the implementation of projects for their constituents, a role that traditionally belongs to the Executive department.

“His moral ascendancy is not enough. He will have to get public opinion on his side, rely on his key allies in Congress and pick issues that can be won. Other issues will have to wait for better timing or will have to be pursued by the next President,” De Vera told Sun.Star.

Other issues worth looking into, political analyst Ramon Casiple said, are the government’s progress in abating media killings, exacting accountability from corrupt officials, final peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and rehabilitation of Yolanda-affected areas.

Yolanda, which exposed the Philippines’ insufficient preparation to a major disaster, has killed more than 6,000 people and total damage and loss has been estimated at P571.1 billion, according to the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda).

The estimate includes physical assets, reductions in production, sales and income, as well as the value of increased operating costs resulting from the disaster.

Aside from Yolanda, other calamities that hit the country in 2013 include Typhoons Santi and Labuyo that hit Luzon, the failed MNLF siege in Zamboanga City, and the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that jolted Bohol and Cebu.

Despite the catastrophic events, the economy is poised to meet the 6 to 7 percent target for 2013 and the robust growth will likely continue in 2014 due to massive rebuilding and investor confidence, an official said.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said the economy will grow between 6.5 and 7.5 percent in 2014. So far, gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by 7.4 percent in the nine months ending September.

“Although losses in agriculture resulting from Yolanda devastation is expected to reduce growth in the first quarter, reconstruction efforts are presumed to contribute to growth, particularly the rebuilding of shelter and other public and private infrastructure in the affected areas,” he said.

The completion of Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda (RAY) plan by 2017, Balisacan said, signals the beginning of a full-blown recovery and reconstruction of the economy, lives and livelihood in the typhoon-affected areas.

The main intention is to restore the economic and social conditions of these areas at the very least to their pre-typhoon levels and to a higher level of disaster resilience. The estimate cost of reconstruction is at P361 billion, of which P145 billion will come from government pocket in 2014.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) tempered its expectations for the Philippine economy although the ramping up of reconstruction “should boost economic activity” while the World Bank forecasts growth to hit 6.9 percent in 2013 and 6.5 percent in 2014.

UP economist Benjamin Diokno, on the other hand, was not so optimistic, pegging 2014 GDP growth between 5.5 percent and 6.5 percent because of the effects of the calamities.

“President Aquino’s ability to address the human sufferings and the massive loss in public infrastructure and private properties will be his major challenge in 2014 and up to the end of his term,” he said in his newspaper column.

Meanwhile, the political analysts said it would be too early to speculate as to who will run for the presidency in 2016, except for the outspoken Vice President Jejomar Binay.

“Political realignments will happen in 2015. 2014 will be too early for administration allies to jump ship, as they will still try to get concessions and projects from the administration. What you will see in 2014 is the slow emergence of presidentiables,” said De Vera.

Senator Grace Poe, a surprise topnotcher in the May 2013 polls, was seen by New York-based think tank Global Source as one of Aquino’s four choices as successor in 2016.

Joining her on the list were Senators Francis Escudero and Alan Peter Cayetano and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II, who gave way to Aquino as the Liberal Party bet for the top post in the land in 2010.

Roxas has since downplayed reports that he is Aquino’s chosen one although he has become more visible, taking up major roles in crisis response. (Sunnex)

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