Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on May 25, 2007

Which view is true?

The contrast in perspectives exhibited by civil society and business of the May 14 Philippine national election is dramatic both locally and internationally. Locally, civil society complained bitterly about alleged cheating and intimidation, the unconstitutional perpetuation of political dynasties, and a surprising level of election violence compared to earlier elections in recent years.

Business, in the meantime, reacted with optimism to the “mostly peaceful” polls by boosting the stock market and the peso to new highs. At least one investment bank rode that wave of enthusiasm, advising investors to increase their holdings. JP Morgan Securities strategist Adrian Mowat reportedly told participants in an investor conference that “investors are waking up to this market and people are increasingly getting on a plane and coming to Manila.”

International headlines mostly mirrored the contrasting perspectives. On May 15, the U.S. “paper of record,” The New York Times, carried a story headlined “Deaths and Fraud Reports Mar Philippine Vote ” (subscription required) by Carlos H. Conde. Two days earlier in the lead up to the election, Conde wrote a story headlined, “Family Ties Bind Philippine Government ,” (subscription required) that profiled clan politics and the violence it generates.

The Times, a staunchly liberal publication on the front page as well as the editorial page, mirrors the principal concerns of civil society for protection of individual freedoms, the right to vote, and equal treatment under the law regardless of financial, social, or cultural status. That’s not to say that business isn’t likewise as concerned with these issues. But it has other concerns as well.

To demonstrate, consider stories that ran in the leading U.S. business paper, The Wall Street Journal. In the lead up to the election, Cris Larano wrote a story headlined, “Arroyo’s Job Appears Secure .” (subscription required) The day after the election, no story appeared on the Philippines at all, surprising since the Philippines is an important market for the paper’s Asian edition.

But on May 17, Michael Connolly wrote a story headlined, “Arroyo Plans Could Produce Even Bigger Philippines Revival .” (subscription required) Connolly said, “plans by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to push for new overhauls to attract more foreign investment and cut more bureaucratic red tape could accelerate the country’s economic revival even further.” He explained that improving exports, the outsourcing boom, and increasing remittances from overseas workers could lead to nearly seven percent growth this year.

That story was based on another, “Philippines’ Arroyo Seeks Economic Challenge ,” (subscription required) by The Journal’s James Hookway, a long-time Philippine resident, which also ran May 17. Hookway interviewed Arroyo the day before, and wrote that “election results that promise political stability and more economic growth should appeal to multinational companies seeking to expand, economic analysts say.”

The only story carried by The Journal that focused on the concerns of civil society was an editorial written in fact by a member of Philippine civil society. It was likely commissioned by the Hong Kong editorial page editors, who unlike the paper’s news editors, for some reason felt civil society issues trumped business issues related to the election. Typically, The Journal’s editorial page wears its business focus on the cuff, which makes the decision to run the editorial decidedly curious.

Be that as it may, it is clear that in the period after the elections both locally and internationally the Philippines was being presented in two distinct versions. On the one hand, news reports depicted the country as a democratic backwater, a violent nation that is struggling, mostly unsuccessfully, to break free from a clan-dominated, violent electoral tradition.

The other view is much more positive. It projects Arroyo as a resolute leader who has consolidated political control, thereby enabling much-need economic and fiscal reform. As a result of that record, as evidenced by higher growth and improved fiscal management and investor confidence, the country is emerging as an even more attractive investment site.

These contrasts beg the question, “Which view is true?” And the reality is that both, of course, are. The more important question is, “Which view will continue to be true?” And the answer is: we just don’t know. I assume that most of us hope it is the alternate view, the business view, that will continue to be true, and become truer still. And that the other view will become a distant memory.

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