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Filipinos Ask: Could Democracy Be The Villain? With AM-Philippines-Subic, Bjt

November 23, 1992

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ At a time when most of the world is embracing democracy, Filipinos are asking whether their U.S.-style government may be at the root of their economic and social problems.

Few of the country’s 65 million people are calling for a return to the dictatorial style of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted in the 1986 ″people power revolution″ that installed Corazon Aquino.

But many commentators and political leaders complain that the current system, with separation of powers and checks-and-balances, inhibits strong leadership and makes it difficult to build a national consensus.

″I agree that our American-style democracy, more than anything else, has been responsible for our economic stagnation,″ wrote commentator Emil Jurado in The Manila Standard.

The debate accelerated following last week’s speech by former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, who told a business conference that the Philippine system produces ″gridlock on every major issue.″

That same day, President Fidel Ramos told his National Security Council that ″something is terribly wrong″ with the way Filipinos have governed themselves since independence from the United States in 1946 - one of the longest democratic traditions in the developing world.

The gloomy assessment stems mostly from the Philippines’ poor economic performance in a region enjoying the world’s highest economic growth rates.

Last year, the Philippine economy was stagnant, due to policy failures and a series of natural disasters, including a major earthquake in 1990 and a volcanic eruption the following year.

A World Bank study found that real per-capita wages were more than 7 percent lower than a decade ago.

Numerous studies have identified specific problem areas inhibiting economic growth: monopoly industries protected by protectionist tariffs, government favoritism, inequitable land distribution, failure to collect taxes and others.

But reforms have been blocked by the fact that powerful economic and political interests profit from the current arrangement and have exerted enough influence to prevent meaningful changes.

For example, a landlord-dominated Congress so watered down the 1987 agrarian reform bill that most of the original sponsors voted against the final version.

Furthermore, the 1987 Constitution significantly weakened the powers of the presidency so as to prevent the rise of a new Marcos. The constitution requires congressional approval not only of Cabinet members but of senior police, military and agency officials.

The charter also restored a bicameral legislature. But because senators are elected nationwide, some have received more votes than the president and argue that they have no need to follow his directions.

Coupled with a weak political party structure, this means President Ramos faces a formidable task in pushing his programs through a legislature which often takes six months to a year to enact controversial bills.

Following Lee’s speech, which was widely reported, most commentators and major newspapers said techniques which were successful in Singapore, a city state of 3 million people, are probably unworkable in a country of 65 million people scattered over 7,100 islands and with eight major linguistic groups and two major religions: Christianity and Islam.

″What the citizens fervently want is a strong president who will enforce the laws in straightening things out, not an autocratic or despotic one,″ wrote commentator Belinda Cunanan in The Philippine Daily Inquirer.