MANILA, June 11, 2005
 (STAR) FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno - We tripped again.

Just as the peso began to strengthen and the stock market found new vigor, we inflict on ourselves a highly contrived controversy. The political burlesque we have been treated to the past few days might be engrossing. It is also self-defeating.

Last Thursday, so soon after the Phisix climbed beyond the 2000-point level, stock prices slumped, shedding off disturbing three percent in one day. The peso is again testing the P55:$1 threshold.

As the currency weakens, global prices for crude oil resumed its upward creep, the domestic inflationary impact will be magnified. That heightens the vicious cycle of inflation and discontent.

Frankly, I cannot make heads or tails of both the jueteng hearings at the Senate or the mysterious audiotapes claimed to emanate from tapped phone conversations of the President.

Through all the he said/she said at the Senate hearings and all the voice prints we see on television relating to the tapped phone conversations, many things are not clear: What are the legislative concerns being addressed here? What crimes could be penalized? What wrong-doing could possibly be criminalized by way of fresh legislation?

I have not been keeping close track of this new round of scandals although, many times each day the past week, I received phone calls from investment analysts abroad who are spooked by the bizarre political carnival going on here. Basically I tell them I am as mystified as everybody else.

I can understand their concerns. All the talk of "destabilization" efforts pushed by administration spokesmen take comedy out of all this.

From the outside, it is easy to imagine this political carnival is more serious than it really is. We have, after all, a President whose approval ratings have basically fallen through the floor, setting record lows in the last round of opinion surveys. In any other country, a leader who has become as unpopular at a moment of great popular misery becomes extremely vulnerable.

The uniqueness of our case is that there is no political catalyst for the gathering discontent, no alternative political leadership ready to command the agitation. That is truly pathetic. But it is also reassuring in a way: the stage is not set for a dramatic political discontinuity and a new cycle of turbulence.

It is also sad, however.

The legitimacy and the credibility of the presently available leadership will be gravely taxed by this episode. That can only mean even weaker political will to undertake the necessary reforms into the foreseeable future.

I share the sentiment expressed by a chorus of leaders from the business community: let’s set a timetable for resolving this scandal. The more interminable it appears to be, the greater the adverse impact this would have on the people’s economy.

We heard enough hearsay and denials. The senators must tell us soon if they intend to move to legalize the vice of jueteng so that at least public revenues might be realized from it, the conduct of the numbers draw might become fairer and the corruption aspects of this "industry" might be minimized.

Meanwhile, government might consider organizing a special panel of prosecutors to determine accountabilities and file cases. Our fiscal problems might be helped if we unleash the BIR on the suspected gambling lords along with the alleged recipients of gambling payola and make them account for their curious but conspicuous wealth.

In the end, that is about all that can be done. Let’s not pretend jueteng can be permanently eradicated by presidential fiat. We can only manage the occurrence of this vice, not stamp it out completely.

Sure it erodes public morals. It has done so for generations. But the righteous approach to the problem preferred by the bishops is, unfortunately, not the workable solution. The more we insist on the illegality of this gambling form, the more we raise payola rates at the expense of the small-time bettors.

In our gossipy culture, the now widely circulating audiotapes are truly seductive.

But at some point, somebody authoritative will have to determine if some wrongdoing might be inferred from it and if that wrongdoing is actually punishable under existing law. Otherwise this matter will only be used by those who seek to unduly aggravate political passions and undermine capacity to govern.

Meanwhile, the people’s economy is bleeding.

We might want to stanch the bleeding and continue the difficult work of rebuilding confidence in our capacity to govern ourselves. Or, we can choose to let the bleeding continue – fully conscious that it will be the poor who will suffer most from lack of investments and therefore lack of employment opportunities.

I do not wish to downplay the moral aspects of the problems raised in this scandal. They are valid things to think about, valid things to address.

Our institutions have once more been seriously stained. Our people’s faith in those who govern our collective lives, already tenuous and already gutted by a cynical political culture, has been further shaken the past few days.

But we simply cannot afford another long morality play driven by political prophets who claim to having silver bullets that will solve all the complex afflictions of our hapless society.

At some point – soon enough, I hope – practicality will have to take grip of the situation, restoring a sense of proportion about what is workable and what is not.

When practicality takes grip, we might arrive at solutions that are less than morally satisfying. We might have to reconcile with the imperfections that abound around us. But practicality will avert the ballooning of misery.

We simply cannot go on ranting madly in search of perfection. The road to hell, we might be reminded, is often paved with good intentions.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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