Wednesday, September 8, 2010

0 Noynoy Flunks His First Test

By Maria A. Ressa
From The Wall Street Journal Asia © 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

ilipinos have high hopes for President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, who took power two months ago with the largest margin of victory in two decades and an 85% approval rating. His popularity rested mostly on promises of good values and cleaner governance—promises his mother, democracy icon Cory Aquino, made too. Yet his first major test in office shows how early political compromises are exacerbating problems in the weak institutions he's promised to reform.

On Aug. 23, a disgruntled former police officer took a tourist bus hostage and after a long stand-off, killed eight passengers, all Hong Kongers. The government's response was an exercise in incompetence. In public hearings that began Friday, police and politicians admitted that untrained, ill-equipped forces were used while elite units were put on standby; that national leaders played no role in the crisis response despite foreigners' involvement; and that ad hoc, unclear lines of communication between local politicians and local police complicated matters. To add insult to injury, the authorities in charge left the scene to eat in a nearby Chinese restaurant precisely when the killings began.

The incident sparked outrage in Hong Kong, where the government has called for an independent investigation and compensation for the victims' families. But Mr. Aquino only belatedly realized the gravity of the situation. His first instinct was to blame the national media for covering the event live, a sentiment that citizens in the blogosphere and on Twitter quickly echoed. When the hearings did little to quell public anger on Friday—two weeks after the fiasco—he claimed responsibility "for everything that has transpired."

There is truth in that assertion. The agencies tasked with resolving the hostage crisis—the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Palace Communications group—are divided into two political factions, both of which are competing for political influence. Instead of choosing between them, Mr. Aquino rewarded both with high cabinet offices.

The first, the Samar faction, is named after the street where one of Mr. Aquino's campaign headquarters was located, and includes former aides and officials with long personal ties to the president and his family. Many of them, like National Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, served under Mr. Aquino's mother's government in 1986. The second, the Balay faction, is associated with the Liberal Party and former cabinet secretaries who publicly challenged Mr. Aquino's predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Younger and perceived as more professional, the Balay group is also associated with Senator Mar Roxas, Mr. Aquino's vice-presidential candidate who did not win election.

These factional splits played a big role in last month's bungled response to the hostage crisis. The Department of the Interior and Local Government is in charge of both local government and security, and the secretary of the interior usually controls the Philippine National Police. But in July, President Aquino stripped Secretary Jesse Robredo, who belongs to the Balay faction, of his powers over the police.

Mr. Aquino handed leadership to an underqualified member of the Samar faction, his personal friend and "shooting" partner, Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno. During the crisis, Mr. Puno exerted almost no leadership, preferring to let the local police handle the situation. There was little crowd control, and a local radio station was allowed to speak to the hostage-taker in the final moments of the crisis. During the later hearings, Mr. Puno said, "I am not capable of handling hostage situations. . . I am not trained to do that."

The factions also played a role in the management of public information and press coverage. The Palace Communications Group, which in the past was headed by one press secretary, now has three leaders with cabinet secretary rank: the Samar faction's Sonny Coloma and the Balay faction's Edwin Lacierda and Ricky Carandang, the latter of whom is a former television anchor for my news organization. Thus on the fateful day, the administration had trouble deciding what to say and how to say it. Local officials were left to handle messaging, focusing on the details rather than the broader substance and impact of the day's events. Hong Kong's chief executive Donald Tsang was even prevented from talking to Mr. Aquino.

For many Filipinos, this bungling is wearingly familiar. The country has a famously weak system of law and order which often sees criminals go unpunished. Mr. Aquino ran for office promising to clean up this culture of corruption. That's why the hostage crisis was so disturbing: It was a disastrous example of incompetence, political factionalism and lack of national leadership.

All of which points back to the president's office. Like his mother, President Aquino is easy-going, well-liked by his peers, and shies away from controversy and conflict. That manner of governance might have worked in the House and Senate, where he failed to initiate or pass any bill, but it doesn't work in the president's office. The Samar and Balay factional split represents a real test of Mr. Aquino's leadership—between familiar, highly valued personal loyalty and generational change and professionalism.

The president's indecisiveness has already indirectly led to one tragedy. The coming weeks will show whether he can learn from his mistakes, or whether the Philippines is in for another Aquino presidency that has good intentions but bungled outcomes.

Ms. Ressa is the head of news and current affairs at ABS-CBN Broadcasting and the author of "Seeds of Terror" (Free Press, 2003).

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