On Marcos Jr’s plan to run Agriculture with his left hand

On The Chiefs on One News, I talked to veteran journalists Ed Lingao, Roby Alampay, and Amy Pamintuan to share my thoughts on how the Marcos Jr cabinet is shaping up and his plan to run the Agriculture department with his left hand.

Here is the recorded video of the interview (23:59-56:00).

I’ve also summarized the points I’ve made in the interview in the text below.

Is it a good idea to have the president-elect run Agriculture on his own?

I actually think that’s a very good and  right question to ask about this declaration coming from the president-elect that he wants to handle the agriculture portfolio directly. On the one hand, he’s saying that the reason why he’s doing this as we know is because he’s convinced that there is a crisis in the sector and there are urgent problems that must be dealt with. And from his first perspective it makes perfect sense that the president will deal with it directly. But, on the other hand, it’s been the practice too that when something is really urgent, when something must really be tackled right away, that it’s really the priority of the national government, the usual practice is to designate a special task force or special person— someone close to the president, someone with proven competence, someone trusted just like in the current administration. Because, obviously, what would happen given the demands of being the president and running and overseeing the entire bureaucracy, what is likely to happen is the president-elect Marcos Jr. will be forced to run the agriculture department with just his left hand. His other hand will be busy doing all the required presidential work. And that would just really be not compatible to what he says is the reason why he would want to take on the Agriculture department.

Is this a political gamble on the part of president-elect Marcos Jr? Is the plan politically risky?

I think this plan, being a political gamble, is actually the only reason why it is being pursued. We hear from the incoming administration that the reason why the president-elect wants to run DA is because there are urgent problems. But there could also be another reason why they cannot attract someone to handle DA. Because nobody wants to be the fall guy. Politically, it would be really hard to deliver on the grand promises of the incoming administration for example on the lowering  the price of a kilo of rice to 20 pesos. This is a really tall order. If you will be having this department, all of the political risks will be on you. If you won’t deliver, it’s your head that will be on the chopping block. But if you succeed, the Marcos Jr administration would get the recognition and benefits. So, I actually think that because the president-elect decided to handle this on his own, that this is also a big political risk. Although we have also seen in the current administration that the relationship with the voters, the relationship with Filipino citizens isn’t really exactly straightforward when it comes to making policy related promises and being unable to fulfill them. I think that if you have a good enough story to tell to the Filipino people why your promises didn’t happen, then you can easily get away with it.

Why is the incoming administration now backpedalling its promise to reduce the price of rice in the country?

The president-elect enjoyed historic landslide votes. He has a really huge political coalition. So one can imagine that for the different departments, there are many allies who are seeking for his appointment. But it’s just really perplexing that it appears that, at least from my perspective, no one is really raising his  hand to run the agriculture department. And when it comes to the promise of reducing the price of rice, they are starting to backpedal. They now say it’s an aspiration rather than really a policy initiative of the incoming administration. And this is understandable, because it’s just really difficult to deliver. For example if you look at NFA, the government controlled rice supply. Even if they can lower down the price of NFA rice to as much as 20 pesos, it’s just a really small portion of the entire supply of rice in in the country. So it would really take a lot of work and most of it is really structural. The price of a kilo of rice has always been a structural challenge. On the agricultural part, you have to improve productivity from inputs to outputs. But also think about the cost of transportation. Are we ready for example in terms of the demands of transportation to really bring down the cost of agricultural products? So this will take years. Even if they start working on this on July 1,  it will probably take another administration before filipinos will actually see a reduction in the price of rice.

Are policy promises important to the voters?

The standard expectation in terms of democratic accountability of elected politicians is that if they don’t perform well, if they don’t deliver on their promises, then they will be voted out in the next election. But we are very much familiar with the state of the politics in the country. We currently have a president who made big promises and many of those promises are still unfulfilled. If you think about it too, at the local level for example there are political families who’s been in power for two decades or even longer. So this kind of standard expectation of  democratic accountability doesn’t really work  in the country. What happens really is that during election day, these policy promises, these policy initiatives don’t really matter. Something else matters: clientelism, patronage, electoral mobilization, voting machines. This is a big problem. This is why political scientists like me, we, have always advocated changes in the electoral system because we can’t really expect good governance if your electoral system is broken. As long as the politicians in power, as long as  elected government officials don’t  fear that they may not be re-elected because of poor performance then there’s really no incentive to deliver on the policy promises that they’ve made to the voters.

Is this a ‘change’ cabinet?

This is actually one of the things that i’m trying to understand. We know that the president enjoys huge political mandate. But i’m not sure if you could really see that that historic mandate to change the government, to really work on the disenchantment of the Filipino voters on the state of governance in the country, whether that’s really reflected in the choices  in the cabinet appointments. For example what i think about the selections that have been made so far, the message that i get from that is that it’s business as usual, continuity. But if you ask an average voter, the man and woman on the street right now, why they voted for president-elect and even the vice president-elect, it’s because they want change. But I don’t see that in the appointments being made. I haven’t seen any creativity, something really new that may make me rethink and consider that change is, as the current administration popularized, probably coming. I don’t see that.

Is it a good idea to have the VP-elect Sara to run the Department of Education?

I think she will really have a very difficult time you because we are currently in the midst of an education crisis. Aside from the enduring problem in the the backlogs in the infrastructures and facilities in public schools, we also have a learning problem. Our students are really performing poorly in math, in science, and even in reading comprehension compared to our neighbors. We are among the world’s worst performing in international tests. So this will be the challenge to the vice president-elect as she assumes the position of education secretary. And DEPED is also really a huge bureaucracy. She will be leapfrogging from the position Davao City mayor, she’s been vice mayor as well, so this is really a different ball game. She will be running a frontline service department wit 100 visible presence in all parts of the Philippines. This will be a test of her leadership. This is the kind of job that will really demand full attention on her part and I’m not sure if coming in into this coalition with the president-elect and winning this election as well whether that’s also her expectation that she will be playing this particular role in the administration.

Are there wins in the cabinet appointments thus far?

I think the appointments made to the economic team, the economic managers that have been announced, have been celebrated in some sectors. If you are looking for reassurance, if you are coming from the perspective that you want stability and continuity of the economic plans  that’s been put into place in the past six years, then i think you’ll be happy to see these names that have been announced by the president-elect. So I think that’s an easy win, especially for some in the business, in the corporate world, and investors if they want continuity of what they have experienced in the past six years. But as I’ve said, if I will be coming from the perspective of those voters who really thought that this administration will work day starting one on economic recovery of the people, for the entire country to be lifted out of poverty and misery as a result of the pandemic and pre-pandemic problems, i have yet to see any indication that we’re moving towards that direction.

Is this a ‘unity’ cabinet?

There are names that came from past administrations— recycled seasoned bureaucrats and technocrats. And I think that they could say that that’s a reflection of their attempt to unify the country, by bringing these different political forces together. But i’m still also quite worried in terms of the other elements of governance. For example disinformation in the country, who gets access to the president-elect and the vice president-elect, which media outfits will be accredited as part of the Malacanang media. Beacuse i think we are also seeing indications that how they’ve run the campaign, and that was very divisive campaign, that that’s also likely to continue. That there will be this pro-administration vloggers for example spreading disinformation online and targeting and harassing opposition or activists those who are uh raising dissent. We also have yet to hear from the president-elect about the the NTF-ELCAC which have been for the past years really on top of red tagging community activists. If there won’t be any changes to these other aspects of governance as well, then i’m not sure if that’s really communicating or sending the message that they’re ready to work with the rest of the  country and be really unified.

Is this a ‘unity’ government?

I think at this very early stage of the incoming administration, I would concede that the cabinet appointments made thus far is a good expression of unity. That they are willing and that they’re able to work with seasoned bureaucrats and technocrats even if they have served presidents who aren’t really allies of the president-elect. I think that’s a good expression of unity. But, on the on the other hand, we we also see other messages coming from this administration. For example the fact that the vice president-elect chose to do her inaugural ahead and on her own departed from tradition. I know that in 2016 they also did a separate inauguration but that’s understandable because they come from two different political forces. Now that they come from the same ticket and it’s been the first one since 2004, I think there was an expectation that they would return to that practice of doing the inauguration together. So I think  it’s a bit confusing for people like me doing observing you have this attempt to communicate the message of unity on the part of for example the selection of the economic team but there are also other signals, there are also other messages saying something else.

What about the new National Security Adviser? Who denounced red-tagging?

I’m happy, I’m actually really happy to hear that from the incoming national security adviser. And i actually also celebrate the fact that we will have a civilian as a national security adviser. So hopefully there will be a change in the tone as well as the direction of how we’re dealing with our national security challenges. But we also know that the national security sector inside the government is a huge sector and there are different players in there. So we will have to see how influential Dr. Carlos in terms of really changing the direction of the entire national security bureaucracy. And a big part of that will really depend on the president-elect, the marching order will come from him. I haven’t heard anything from him about this issue. And I also want to remind everyone that many of the things that we are talking about in terms of what policy direction the new government would take, what the cabinet members would do, we’re still quite in the dark right because they haven’t really participated in the debates during the election, they haven’t really talked much about their plans. So we’re still trying to really get a better picture here.

I have yet to really make my final argument about this but this may be a new kind of leadership strategy of the incoming administration that they really send different kinds of messages, really send different kinds of signals. It’s like strategic ambiguity. This could be shaping up as their strategy right in terms of public relations, in terms of talking to the media.

Should they release Senator Leila de Lima from jail?

I think that if they’re looking for an easy win and that they really want to communicate that they’re working for the unity of the country and their serious about it, releasing the senator from jail will be a really big step towards that direction. I think that will be welcomed by many in the human rights community including members of the academy who are advocates of human rights. But we also know, politically, that this coalition this incoming administration is a product of an arranged marriage between different forces including the Marcos family and the Duterte family. And the one with really an axe to grind when it comes to the senator is the president Duterte. So this is something that must be resolved within the coalition, whether this is something that they could compromise on, whether they could really let this go right, as sort of a political olive branch. But I doubt that this would be something that they would consider because there is still a standing case in the ICC against Duterte. Senator De Lima’s role as a former commission human rights chair, for example, that would be revisited as part of the investigation. Although the the case is definitely just during the presidency of Duterte. But I’m not sure if they would welcome to see a more active human rights advocacy on the part of the senator. That might not be strategic.

How about the war on drugs?

We could expect that they will continue the war the war on drugs. But I also think that a big part of the war drugs is a function of the leadership style and the personality of the president. And I think they’re two very different personalities, this incoming and outgoing president. So I think, on that note, we could be optimistic that we will probably see a shift in the practice in terms of the drug war. But i think the other important question is whether we’ll be able to see prosecution and we’ll be able to see accountability on the part of those who are involved in the drug war. And I’m not optimistic on that.

Is it trivial to celebrate the return of presidential-like presidential rhetoric?

I think it’s not trivial to talk about the shifts in residential rhetoric and the personality and leadership style of the the president. No, for both the incoming and outgoing president. Because as chief executive, in our constitution, he is not only the head of government but also the head of state. And that means that the aside from the administrative functions, it also means that we look up to the president to speak on behalf of the nation, that the tone at the top really sets the tone at the entire bureaucracy and the nation. So I think these kinds of changes are welcome. For one personally because when I do my research I have to read the transcripts. Sometimes if there are no transcripts available, I have to ask my research assistants to do transcribe the speech. And definitely in the present president, it’s really difficult to work to transcribe presidential press conference, presidential addresses. Now it will be easier. But as I’ve said it’s not trivial because a big part of how for example why democracy is really functional is that there is this expectation of regularity, of presumption of standards that different actors in your society— business, academics, civil society, the population at large— they can expect what roles each play, there’s a regularity in the routines of different actors. And because of that people can make plans, people can make medium-term long-term plans. There is no need for a guessing game. It is a welcome change that we no longer need whisperers or  someone to decode what the president said with the incoming chief executive.

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