Crucial SONA

PNoy’s fourth state of the nation address (SONA) is perhaps the most crucial one for his administration.

The first SONA set the tone of what to expect from his presidency. His address was a message of hope. But the administration’s first year was not spectacular at all. It could be described as the stage of laying the foundation for reform. The people were nevertheless patient, for they wanted the accidental president to succeed.

The handicap of being the neophyte president, the sniping attacks of Gloria Arroyo’s forces and the supreme caution on decision-making by some Cabinet members also contributed to the slow start.

But by the second year of PNoy’s term, big things happened.

The first major development was the removal of Renato Corona as Supreme Court Chief Justice. Impeached in December 2011, Corona was found guilty by the Senate impeachment court for failing to publicly disclose his true assets and net worth. The Corona ouster was a demoralizing defeat for the Arroyo forces.

The second big victory was the passage of the sin tax reforms, a struggle that began as far back as the mid-1990s. It was an overwhelming victory. The reformers trounced the most powerful tobacco lobby in Asia. They were able to secure all the essential features that the pro-tobacco camp opposed. It was a rare game of taking no prisoners.

But the pro-tobacco legislators, led by Senator Bongbong Marcos, are determined to roll back the law. The biggest tobacco manufacturer is hurting, and it is supporting politicians like Marcos to torpedo the law.

Close on the heels of enacting the sin tax was the passage of the reproductive health bill, a reform that is likewise long overdue.

The reactionary side of the Church has not conceded defeat. A furious Church made reproductive health an election issue, but it again lost. Resuscitating its sapping crusade is the Supreme Court’s recent decision to suspend indefinitely the implementation of the law, ostensibly to finish hearing the oral arguments for or against the law.

As PNoy delivers his fourth SONA, he faces tremendous challenges. On the one hand, he has to consolidate and keep defending the gains won in the first three years of his administration. On the other hand, he has to complete his reform agenda, including the passage of a number of bills.

The 16th Congress must pass reforms that are as controversial as the sin tax and reproductive health. These include rationalization of fiscal incentives, mineral taxation, competition policy, technology policy, freedom of information, fiscal transparency, and amendments to the Electric Power Industry Reform Act as well as to the Central Bank Act. Without going into the details, we can cite these as examples of measures that lead to deep institutional changes.

It goes without saying that PNoy is in pursuit of a legacy of change. And the reformers all desire that the gains from his administration endure.

Indeed, the concern of many—those in government, the civil society reformers, the left-of center activists, the technocrats, the local and foreign businessmen, the donor community—is the threat of policy reversal after PNoy leaves office.

People’s ownership of the reforms is thus vital. But as always, the problem is sustaining collective action.

But the easiest or most appealing form of collective action is participating in an election. The outcome of the election will determine whether policy reversal will indeed happen. We must elect a reformer, not necessarily a PNoy clone, in the 2016 election.

We thus reframe the discourse—it is not about the threat of policy reversal but the opportunity of policy continuity.

The fear about policy reversal stems from the perception that a traditional politician in the mold of Jejomar Binay will be the next President. The fear is real in light of a seeming insistence on the part of the ruling party to anoint a weak Mar Roxas as its candidate. The popular perception is Roxas cannot beat Binay.

Worse, a recent development has tarnished the Roxas gloss. The Czech ambassador accused some public officials at the Department of Transportation and Communications of corruption. Those accused are known as the boys of Mar Roxas. An allegation made by an ambassador must be taken seriously.

Instead of being defensive, the administration must conduct a no-nonsense probe. The President’s men must do a Kim Henares act—walang kaibigan-kaibigan, in pursuing the investigation. Where the offense is, let the great axe fall.

PNoy’s work for the remaining three years is unenviable. Not only should he and his team defend the recently won legislative measures; not only should they ensure the passage of another set of difficult reforms. They have to find and groom a candidate for president who can beat the traditional politicians.

The truth is, the ruling coalition has a deep bench. Who knows? We might even have another accidental president.

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).

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