MANILA, January 10, 2004 (STAR) FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno - Economic agenda: It is easy to be dazzled by all the acrobatics going on: the somersaulting across political fences.

There is so much noise about the treachery of turncoats, the brazenness of opportunists and the unscrupulousness of power players. There is so much mock amazement and self-righteous indignation about something that is not new at all: the immense propensity of politicians to seek the most convenient alliances in order to guarantee victory at the polls.

Let’s hope the contrived noises – made mostly for political effect – dies down soon enough. There are truly important issues on which we want to see the candidates taking clear positions. These are life-and-death issues, they spell progress or regression for our community.

Soon enough, we should interrogate the candidates on things that affect our own wellbeing, the capacity for prosperity of the community we share. There are questions that are painful to answer either way – and we hope that these questions will not be kept in the closets.

What should we do with the foreign debt, now larger than our GDP?

If we continue servicing the debt in the same terms as we now do, it will consume a large portion of the national budget. If we refuse to service the debt, our credit rating will fall through the floor, the exchange rate could shoot through the ceiling and we could face fatal financing problems.

What do we do with the chronic fiscal deficit that is now a significant portion of our GDP?

If we impose new taxes, the people will rebel. If we trim government to cut expenses, the bureaucrats will rebel. If we cut government social services, there will be blood in the streets.

What do with do with the yawning infrastructure gap that discourages investments and raises the costs of production and distribution beyond the means of our own consumers?

The Philippines invests 3 percent of its GDP on new facilities – the lowest in the region. Thailand invests 6 percent on new infrastructures. Each year, Thailand charges ahead of us. As things stand, it is estimated that our infrastructures are 20 years behind Thailand’s. How can we compete?

What do we do with the impending power shortages that threaten to plunge our economy into the same crippling darkness we experienced in the late eighties?

Investors do not want to come in because our consumers do not want to pay for the real costs of power. Government will lose political points if it raises power rates to make the market attractive to investments. If nothing happens, power shortages will set in.

The same is true for other direly needed infrastructure such as tollways. For as long as tolls remain politicized, no one will dare invest in our progress.

What do we do with the impending fresh water shortage?

If we raise water rates, people will riot in the streets. If we encourage shifts in our agriculture from water-intensive crops such as rice, the farmers will resist.

What will we do with our international commitments to open markets and encourage trade?

If we turn inwards and renege on our market opening commitments, our economy will stagnate and our people will be poorer. If we continue on with our commitments, weak sections of our economy will be doomed.

What do we do with our high unemployment?

If we relax the minimum wage so that more people could be employed, the unions will go on a rampage. If we insist on a "living wage", a Filipino worker producing the same thing as a Chinese worker does will be paid five times more. Capital will migrate to China; our workers will migrate to Saudi Arabia.

These are only a few of the questions that need to be asked of people who want to lead us. I need not go further. I think the point has been made: on the key questions regarding our development strategy and economic agenda, there are now easy answers.

This is obviously the reason why most of the candidates are shying away from laying down a clear and detailed economic program of government. They would rather enthrall us with motherhood statements promising "hope" for the nation or indulge in the unfounded spin about "character."

It is easy to dwell on things where there is general agreement: the need to peace and order in our communities, the desirability of clean and transparent government and a boundless love for the poor. Politicians have done that since the dawn of democratic choice.

But today, we find our nation on slippery slopes. One major policy error and we slide into the abyss. A major failure in governance and investor confidence evaporates. One stupid utterance and there will be massive speculation against our currency.

We must demand from our candidates a plan.

Pray tell, if you want to lead our people, do you have a roadmap to the future?

Granted, it is more interesting to see mudslingers do their thing. It is immensely more entertaining to dwell of scandals and imagine conspiracies of every sort.

But if we allow ourselves to be so entertained, we might lose sight of the real value of elections: they are occasions for a political community to come to a consensus about what we want to do together.

That consensus will enable leaders, whoever they might be, to take painful but ultimately beneficial decisions. That consensus will encourage acceptance of policies that will bring us to a more secure future.

Without that consensus, our leaders, whoever they might be, will be constantly haunted by whimsical public support, contested legitimacy and endless turbulence. Without that consensus, we will not have decisive leaders, regardless of who those leaders might be.

Which is why we should demand from those who want to lead us: show us the plan.

Let’s agree on something, not just somebody. If we do so, our future might become more manageable regardless of who that somebody might be.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved