The tortured rebirth of Philippine democracy

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on May 12, 2010

On Monday, David E. Apter, a Yale University professor and political scientist recognized for his research into “the often tortured birth of developing nations” as The New York Times’ Dennis Hevesi characterized his work, died. Although Dr. Apter knew Asia-he studied China’s revolutionary leader Mao Zedong and Japanese militants who led protests against the development of farmland where the Tokyo International Airport now stands-his interest in the Philippines was limited.

Yet among Asia’s tortured development stories, none is more tortured than the Philippines’ birth, and regular and just as tortured rebirths. Despite Japan’s current economic and political struggles, the story of its birth is one of success. With the support of its former enemies, Japan rebuilt its economy from the ashes of its destruction to emerge the second largest economy in the world.

The same can be said of China. Unlike Japan, China set out to become a powerful centralized socialist economy, and failed miserably. After Mr. Mao’s death, the twice disgraced Deng Xiaoping outmaneuvered rivals to become China’s Paramount Leader and set China on the road to a “socialist market economy” with his proclamation that to be rich is glorious. Among the many things that Mr. Deng accomplished, perhaps foremost was his willingness to turn his back on an ideology that had failed his nation for the purpose of effectively confronting the issue of widespread poverty.

As I listened to reports of election chaos, long lines, technical glitches, intimidation, and vote buying in the Philippines’ 2010 National Elections, news of Dr. Apter’s demise at 85 due to complications associated with cancer arrived in my inbox. It made me wonder if the tortured process Filipinos were experiencing and I was observing was a painful birth that would ultimately take the Philippines along the same development path that so many of its neighbors have traveled in the last half century, or just another agonizing prelude to the latest chapter of the bastardization of Philippine democracy that has robbed this country and its people of their potential for more than six decades.

When the winners of the National Elections are announced, it will remain unclear which path the Philippines will take over the next six years. The job of getting elected will be over, but it will take time to see how prepared the winners are at doing the jobs they’ve won-hopefully more or less credibly and honestly. But the fact that the elections took place at all is a start in the view of many business executives and investors.

A recent online survey commissioned by the Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP) and Outsource2Philippines (O2P) and conducted by TeamAsia demonstrated overwhelmingly that executives and investors in this industry and its support industries believe a failure of elections would have been a disaster in terms of investor and client perception of the Philippines. Ninety-three percent said a failure of elections would have a “somewhat” to “very significant” negative impact on perception, and 82% said that impact would be at least “somewhat significant.” (Disclosure: BPAP is a client of my firm, TeamAsia. TeamAsia is acquiring O2P.)

Reports of technical and organizational problems, vote buying, and voter intimidation however will have a negative effect on investor and client perception. By 9:00 am Monday international reports were circulating widely describing the poor management of the election process, malfunctioning equipment, lost ballots, and at least some violence. That will disappoint the 98% of respondents who said it is “somewhat” or “very significantly” important for the Philippines to conduct a peaceful, credible, and transparent election to enhance investor perception.

(Update: By the time this column originally appeared, it was clear that despite some management problems, the Philippines had not disappointed investors after all. Filipinos themselves seemed stunned that the automated count had gone so well.)

One more test remains ahead, however, and that is management of the transition. Despite election chaos, a smooth handoff by the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to her successor will have a positive impact on BPO investor and client perception of the Philippines. Ninety-nine percent believe a smooth transition will have a “somewhat” to “very significant” positive effect on perception of the Philippines, and 85% believe it will have a “significant” or “very significant” impact on perception.

At least in the view of these respondents, there’s a chance that the latest torturous rebirth of democracy in the Philippines-many argue that Ms. Arroyo has never actually been elected-will have a different future from elections past. Perhaps that future will be one where the incidence of poverty actually reverses direction, that educational infrastructure gets modernized, and Filipinos view their country as their future, not immigrating to an economy that has made it.

Let’s hope for that chance.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand . Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.

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