Relationships or Rules: Which form of governance best suits us?

The election of 2016 is shaping up as a contest between Daang Matuwid (Straight Path) and Pamunuang Nagmamalasakit (Caring Leadership). 

These represent two forms of governance. Daang Matuwid, the touchstone of Pres. Aquino’s administration, championed by his anointed successor Mar Roxas, seeks to institutionalise a rule-based form of governance.

His two main rivals, Vice President Jojo Binay and Sen. Grace Poe have both spoken of a softer, gentler kind of governance, based on malasakit or caring, a relation-based approach.

It remains to be seen how latecomer Sen. Miriam Santiago frames her campaign for the top post. In all likelihood, the former trial court judge and anti-corruption crusader will call for a strict rule-bound type of governance, the same as Mr. Roxas.

The official candidates have played to their strengths, choosing narratives that suit their character and track record:

  • Mar Roxas is relying on his unsullied reputation as a former legislator and cabinet secretary to lend him credibility as the one true adherent of Daang Matuwid. He is also counting on his professional background in investment banking to cement his pro-business attitude in the minds of the professional and entrepreneurial class.
  • Grace Poe is leveraging the legacy of her adoptive parents, actors Fernando Poe, Jr. (deceased former presidential candidate) and Susan Roces, as approachable idols of the masses, to style herself as a caring mother of the nation. She also claims to adhere to Daang Matuwid, but says she will bring a softer style.
  • Jojo Binay uses his life story, having come from the ranks of the poor to be a human rights lawyer on the side of the oppressed, delivering public education, health and housing as a mayor and cabinet secretary, to cement his image as an empathetic leader. He has labelled the administration manhid at palpak (callous and bungling) and wants to set a different tone.
  • Miriam Defensor Santiago is borrowing from the title of her book, Stupid is Forever, saying she is the candidate of the “non-stupid” vote in appealing for a higher standard, presumably one based on the norms of Western democracy and rule of law, which she has emphasised as a legal scholar, author and legislator.

Leaving all these personalities aside, which is better? Relation- or rule-based governance? Let us first define what they mean. According to the explanation of one author

(R)ule based governance systems rely on public rules – formal laws and government regulations to encourage and facilitate economic exchange. In other words, economic transactions are publicly ordered. In contrast, relation-based governance systems rely on private guidelines – informal relationships and norms of reciprocity – to encourage and facilitate economic exchanges. In other words, economic transactions are privately ordered.

The reform movement asserts that a rule-based approach would be preferable for the country, as it is the system observed in the West. Within public policy circles, experts would want nothing else than to be free of pandering politicians in crafting policies and programs designed to improve society.

Citizens who are on the receiving end of public services often feel the system treats them inhumanely. No one wants to be handled like a number at the end of a long queue. That is why politicians exist—to advocate on their behalf, bend the rules, and extract more from the public purse to meet their particular needs.

The business elite often clamor for a “level playing field”, but what they really mean is for government to enforce the rules that they have already rigged in their favor. The poor who live on the margins need extra help from a padrino to extend the reach of the state to their family and community. Each wants government to make everyone else play by the same rules—everyone but them.

Between relation- and rule-based systems, East Asian states fell somewhere in between. When they were catching-up economically with the West they dealt with business in a less-than-arm’s-length manner, but were capable of crafting policies independent of special interests, making clients abide by their strict rules. A provocative insight of this framework is said to be the following:

(T)he choice of governance system is a matter of scale and stage of development – when the economy is local and limited, relation-based governance can be effective and efficient. As the overall economy expands and globalizes, it will lose its cost advantages and thus must evolve into a rule-based governance system.

Is the Philippines ready for rule-based governance? That is what the administration is hoping for. Hence they have positioned Mar Roxas, the consummate technocrat as Pres. Aquino’s successor.

Can the Philippines afford another six years under a government that professes to be rule-bound, but is insensitive to the people and only enforces the rules selectively? That will be the question the opposition poses.

If the Philippines is not ready for a rule-bound system, and perhaps won’t be for quite some time to come, then the more appropriate question to ask is, what proximate forms of governance are more applicable and achievable for us, and who among the candidates can best deliver them? As Merilee Grindle contends

The good governance agenda is unrealistically long and growing longer over time. Among the multitude of governance reforms that “must be done” to encourage development and reduce poverty, there is little guidance about what’s essential and what’s not, what should come first and what should follow… If more attention is given to sorting out these questions, “good enough governance” may become a more realistic goal … (It) means accepting a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of institutions and government capabilities; being explicit about trade-offs and priorities in a world in which all good things cannot be pursued at once; learning about what’s working rather than focusing solely on governance gaps; taking the role of government in poverty alleviation seriously; and grounding action in the contextual realities of each country [emphasis mine].