By William Pesek
Give it up for Benigno Aquino. The Philippine president isn't averse to taking risks that could leave his $200 billion economy and 102 million people better off.
Start with his bold stance against the powerful Catholic Church, which impedes access to contraception and family planning in a decidedly overpopulated nation. Aquino is going after the billions watchdog groups say Ferdinand Marcos looted during his 21 years in power. Now he's holding his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, to account for alleged corruption.
This last effort is a noble one, yet it entails risks to which investors should pay close attention.
Arroyo, president from 2001 to 2010, should indeed be investigated for election fraud and other offenses. So should her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, the subject of a plunder complaint filed by the Philippine police, and her son, Juan Miguel Arroyo, on tax-evasion charges.
Two problems are worth considering, though. One, this story at times has a whiff of a feud between two prominent families -- the Aquinos and the Arroyos. Concerns are being raised about the legality of Aquino's efforts to keep Gloria Arroyo, who claims she needs medical attention overseas, from leaving the nation. A possible constitutional crisis looms.
The second is even more important as Europe's crisis zooms Asia's way: The Philippines may be too distracted by domestic soap operas to modernize its rickety economy.
The fallout from Arroyo's Nov. 18 arrest is consuming the government at a time when it needs to support domestic demand, limit inflation and make sure the spoils of the nation's 3.2 percent growth is getting to those who most need it.
Corruption is a major cause of the economy's dysfunction. The Philippines ranks 129th out of 183 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, tied with Syria and Armenia. That’s a sobering reminder of the heavy lifting needed to make the economy more efficient and equitable.
It's a balancing act, though. Amid limited government resources, there's a risk the Philippines will spend precious time, money and energy chasing Arroyo, who can hire the best lawyers to defend her in the months and years ahead. After all, imprisoning Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada, didn't raise the nation's game.
It's even more important to build institutions needed to ensure Philippine democracy works in the decades ahead. The nation needs a more independent judiciary, a non-partisan election commission, a less political military apparatus and a strong anti-corruption arm to attack graft once and for all.
So, by all means,examine Arroyo's alleged sins from yesterday. Just so long as Aquino keeps his focus on the reforms needed to create a more vibrant tomorrow.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
-0- Dec/02/2011 23:31 GMT