By Phoebe De Padua
Philippine president Benigno Aquino III will deliver his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 22, marking the halfway point of his presidency. The speech will answer questions about what he intends do with the impressive political capital he has accumulated.
Aquino enjoys unprecedented public support for a Philippine president at this juncture in his term. Public polling indicates a 72 percent approval rating, his party dominates both houses of the Congress, and the economy, which is growing at 7.8 percent, is one of the best performing in Asia and around the world. The president has the momentum to do things few other Philippine leaders could accomplish.
This is the moment when Aquino must consolidate the positions that will define his leadership. Philippine presidents are limited to a single six-year term. At the same time that China is pressing him to address national security concerns, he must make important decisions about how to enhance competitiveness and his country’s social safety net. Aquino will need to address the issues that most concern the Philippine public. Expect him to note the challenges facing his agenda while emphasizing successful reforms in key sectors.
On security, the president will need to talk to his citizens about the need to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines and expand cooperation with security partners like the United States, Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN counterparts. This will require investments in new military capabilities, and increased rotational access for foreign forces to engage in joint training and regional deployment. The Philippines has allocated $1.8 billion to modernize its naval capabilities and indicated it will make over 20 major procurements by 2016, making part of Aquino’s legacy a republic better able to defend itself from future threats.
In terms of competitiveness, the president has to make a determination about whether to revise the constitution’s economic provisions to provide the option to participate in new regional trade enhancing agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Domestic security is a priority. Aquino will point to an agreement between his government and Muslim separatist group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He will highlight a recent compromise on a contentious annex to the framework peace agreement reached in October 2012. Under the recently agreed-upon deal, the autonomous government in Mindanao will get 75 percent of revenues from oil, gas, and other minerals extracted in the region while the central government gets 25 percent. The two groups must remain committed to their decision on settling two other annexes, on power-sharing and normalization, by the end of 2013.
While Manila has been actively engaged in many initiatives, the Aquino administration has more reform ambitions to implement before the end of the president’s term. This month, the Supreme Court voted 8-7 to indefinitely extend a freeze on implementation of the 2012 Reproductive Health Law. As a vocal supporter of the law, Aquino is expected to keep pushing for the legislation in the remaining years of his presidency. Another bill currently awaiting further action is the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which is controversial for its perceived restrictions on online freedom of expression. The Supreme Court promised to review the law during the 16th Congress, which begins on July 22.
In a July 15 speech, Aquino said the “best is yet to come” for his government’s performance. He said that the 2013 SONA will reflect his administration’s commitment to achieve inclusive growth and serve the Philippines’ most impoverished citizens. Aquino’s optimistic tone about continued progress in the Philippines will be evident in the SONA. His confidence in a brighter future for the country will prove vital as he pushes for controversial reforms before the end of his presidential term in 2016.
Ms. Phoebe De Pauda is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.