Democracy Pays a Price in the Philippines

In trying to catch up with its more successful neighbors, this Southeast Asian nation allows Ramos to consolidate power

PHILIPPINE President Fidel Ramos, an ex-military general-turned-politician who has led this nation of islands since July 1992, says he is ''vindicating democracy's good name.''

What Filipinos accomplished last year, he has argued in recent speeches, shows that economic growth can be achieved without practicing the authoritarianism so common in this part of the world and often praised for its economic benefits.

The irony is that some Filipinos believe that Mr. Ramos is successful precisely because he is making their government more like the prosperous regimes of East Asia -- consensus-oriented, single-minded in the pursuit of growth, and monolithic.

Ramos and his legislative allies have no organized political opposition. ''The Philippines is going back to a tradition of one-party rule within a democratic system,'' observes Amando Doronila, a respected commentator here.

Catching up

The nation's desire to catch up with its neighbors' economic successes -- after falling back during the 1966-1986 rule of former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos -- has created a political climate for Ramos to consolidate power.

The country is now gearing up for May elections that will decide all the seats in the lower house of Congress and one third of those in the Senate. Ramos, who fought five other presidential contenders in a 1992 election, came into office with just a quarter of the popular vote, but he has been busy forging coalitions and political alliances ever since. As a result, says Mr. Doronila, parties that once threatened him ''will be decimated'' in May.

Some people have even accused Ramos of creating an authoritarian regime similar to that of his one-time boss, President Marcos, whom Ramos helped depose in 1986. These critics, however, are generally people linked to Marcos, who died in exile and disgrace in 1989.

Analysts here say that most Filipinos, particularly among the elite, support Ramos and the type of government he is creating, reassured that the press and the politically influential Roman Catholic Church can check any authoritarian inclinations.

The president's supporters say any such inclinations would have cropped up long ago, and that Ramos has passed up several opportunities to seize power undemocratically. They deny the suggestion that Ramos will try to have the Constitution amended to allow him a second term -- he is scheduled to leave office in 1998 -- or switch to a parliamentary system that would leave room for him as prime minister.

Ramos himself makes no apologies for what he calls his ''coalitioning.'' Citing the examples of coalitions in neighboring Thailand and Malaysia, the president says broad alliances and highly cohesive governments are ''the only way possible.''

In order to make up for economic backsliding under Marcos, Ramos and his advisers are following a now-familiar formula -- retooling the economy so Filipinos can participate as fully as possible in a world where free trade has become a near-universal value. They are opening the economy to foreign investment, breaking monopolies, and privatizing state-run businesses.

The early numbers are good. The gross national product grew by 5.5 percent in 1994, exports were up by almost 18 percent, and the government put an end to years of deficit spending.

Underlying the economic reform program, however, is a more complex strategy. Ramos wants nothing less than to recast the Philippine ethos.

''We are empowering two groups of people in this country, the poor and the rich'' said Jose Almonte, director-general of the country's National Security Council and the Ramos government's key strategist, in an interview. ''Empowering the rich is the most difficult,'' he adds, because it amounts ''to asking them to listen to their conscience.''

Mr. Almonte claims that the government's tax reform and tax-collection initiatives are designed ''to reshape the nation's character'' by instilling a higher sense of social responsibility, particularly among the wealthy. The Marcos regime was famous for its cronyism, in which the dictator's friends were allowed to maintain monopolies or were granted lucrative franchises.

Corazon Aquino, who followed Marcos as president from 1986 until 1992, proved unable or unwilling to wrench many industries from the control of the cronies. Ramos seems determined not to repeat this mistake.

Almonte, also a retired general, has led a vigorous tax- collection campaign, accomplishing with legal measures what rhetoric has failed to achieve.

A tax-collection campaign

Critics see vindictiveness in these efforts, pointing out that some of the most prominent targets of the revenue-collection campaign are supporters of Ramos's political opponents. Still others see ethnic bias, noting that wealthy Filipinos of Chinese descent seem to be overly represented on the government's list of tax cheats, but officials deny both charges.

Ramos, Almonte, and others insist they are effecting fundamental change, creating an economy where wealth is the product of competition instead of privilege. Many challenges remain in this process. Although the military -- and the failure of communism worldwide -- have all but emasculated the country's nagging communist insurgency, the Philippines is still troubled by kidnappings and crime. Poverty and social inequities are pervasive, but Ramos says he is now addressing these areas in earnest.

One factor that may prevent the Philippines from developing a truly East Asian government is its corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. Ramos says he is targeting bureaucrats on both counts. This month he ordered all public offices to remain open 12 hours a day and created a hot line so people could complain about poor service from public servants.

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