An elite group of Philippine police commandos entered the town of Mamasapano on January 25, 2015, to capture a high profile Malaysian terror suspect named Zulkifli Abdhir also known as “Marwan.” The town, about 900 kilometers south of Manila, was ostensibly controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which last year entered into a peace treaty with the Philippine government, as well as a group known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) that opposes the treaty.
When the police commandos entered the area, a long firefight with both groups ensued, and 44 police officers were killed, among others. The death of the 44 men angered many Filipinos and could have profound economic and political implications for the Philippines beyond the usual short-term impact of political scandals in the country.
The issue is having an immediate and visible impact on the presidency of Benigno S. Aquino III. While the country put its best foot forward recently for government officials and business leaders attending the prestigious Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting of senior officials in the Philippines, President Aquino and his cabinet were hunkered down in crisis mode to deal with the crisis.
The political impact of the Mamasapano incident does not at this point appear to threaten Mr. Aquino’s tenure in office. He is not running for re-election, and for now he has enough support from lawmakers to block an impeachment attempt. And despite rumors of political instability circulating Manila by text message and through social media, a coordinated coup d’état attempt remains highly improbable.
None of the nearly dozen coup attempts since the 1980s have been led by the police. There are few indications that the military, which has come away from Mamasapano largely unscathed, would join in attempts to overthrow the government. Coup rumors in the Philippines are an effective strategy to put the administration on the defensive and leverage their decision making. Nevertheless, Mr. Aquino enjoys a level of public acceptance that would make any coup attempt wildly unpopular with the Filipino citizenry.
The president’s political fortunes could change if Philippine National Police Chief Alan Purisima, who resigned last week, is found to have had an operational role in the Mamasapano raid while he was suspended from his post due to corruption allegations. If a suspended government official supervised such an operation with the blessing of the president, a case could be made for impeachment. Mr. Aquino and Mr. Purisima have said they were involved in the pre-planning stages but not in the execution of the raid on that day.
The greater threat to Mr. Aquino is the loss of political clout in choosing his successor for the May 2016 presidential election, as well as his ability to influence the selection of other national candidates. For now, Mr. Aquino is politically toxic. His endorsement would be a negative for a national candidate. But that could change in the next year.
For the time being, the risk to Mr. Aquino is confined primarily to his loss of popularity and political stature. There is a much more existential threat to the peace agreement and the Bangsamoro Basic Law upon which it relies. The Mamasapano incident has created a public backlash and renewed distrust of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. If a vote for the peace deal is perceived by the public as a vote against the police officers who died and in support of the rebels then it will be very difficult for lawmakers to back the measure.
This is even more critical because 2015 is the beginning of the national election season, when senators and members of congress become more sensitive to public opinion. The Aquino administration and some lawmakers have tried to frame the peace agreement as something that benefits the country as a whole and all the people of Mindanao, and is not just a deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. For now, this message has not resonated with a public that is still grieving the fallen police officers.
There are scenarios in which the Mamasapano incident increases the likelihood of the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. The public outrage over the incident could force the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to accept watered down provisions aimed at being more palatable to the public, and more likely to survive constitutional scrutiny by the Supreme Court. At this point, the rebels have not indicated that they are willing to give way on the provisions being questioned by some lawmakers.
History has shown that the political fortunes of leaders in the Philippines are generally resilient. A political leader can be despised, forgiven, and admired again in a single election cycle. The country’s economy is less resilient. A scandal that came to light in 2013 known as the “pork barrel scam,” involved the alleged diversion of more than 200 million USD in congressional discretionary funds or “pork.” Political fallout from the scandal helped stifle government spending and decreased the growth of the country’s gross national product, according to international banks and economists. The decline in growth pushed the Philippines out of the lead of growing economies in Southeast Asia, though the country is still seen to have bright long-term economic prospects.
The political fallout of the Mamasapano incident could have a similar negative impact on the Philippine economy. Economists of all stripes agree that the number one impediment to increasing the country’s prosperity is infrastructure. The ramshackle roads, ports and airports—as well as the paralyzing traffic of the capital—are a strong hindrance to the foreign investment needed to propel the country into a long-term, high-growth cycle that lifts tens of millions of Filipinos into the middle class.
According to the government, 2015 is set to be the year of infrastructure development for the Philippines. The government hopes to launch 16 public-private partnership deals totaling about 11.6 billion USD in 2015. This infusion of private and government money into the economy could result in a banner year for the Philippines. And the much needed infrastructure upgrade could result in several decades of prosperity for the country.
But these complex projects require strong national government leaders and committed lawmakers to assure the regulatory and political hurdles are overcome. The projects also require the patience of the public as they will be inconvenienced as critical infrastructure upgrades increase traffic and delays during the construction phase. If the country’s political leaders are weakened or distracted by the Mamasapano issue, the likelihood is decreased that these projects will be successfully implemented.
It is not clear that the political fallout from the Mamasapano incident will have such long-range impact. Politics in the Philippines is extraordinarily dynamic and the country’s attention can shift quickly. Other major issues have fallen out of the limelight. The pork barrel spending scam outraged millions of people in the country and provoked street rallies, but it is now barely mentioned in news reports and public discourse. Corruption allegations against Vice President Jejomar Binay have dominated public discourse in recent months, but they have been largely pushed aside to deal with the Mamasapano incident. The running soap opera on Manila broadsheets is about the scandal du jour and yesterday’s cases are soon cast out of the limelight.
It will be an indication of the political maturity of the country if the Mamasapano incident can be investigated and policies changed as needed without derailing the important work in 2015 to set the infrastructure and foreign investment groundwork for the country’s future. However, this remains improbable with a president on the defensive and the pending onset of election season.
Matt Williams is the Country Director, Philippines, at Pacific Strategies and Assessments, which specializes in risk consultancy across the Asia-Pacific region.