The First real test of President Corazon Aquino's new government in the Philippines will be the economy, and getting it growing again. The country has been through a long and extremely severe recession, and inevitably Mrs. Aquino is faced with a great wave of expectations that things will now get better. Probably they will get better -- but it won't happen automatically. It will take the same kind of political skill and courage that she and her colleagues showed in gaining power.
The trouble has all the familiar causes. There has been a long slump in the prices of the commodities that the Philippines export. The country has large foreign debts to carry. Decline feeds on itself by discouraging investment and inciting the flight of capital out of the country. The correctives are all pretty familiar as well -- budget balancing, inflation fighting and a push to export. The sooner it's begun, the less difficult it will be.
There are two recent examples that Mrs. Aquino should not follow. When democracy returned to Argentina in late 1983 the newly elected president, Raul Alfonsin, allowed much uncertainty to arise about his intentions regarding his country's debts. There was a long period of jousting with the International Monetary Fund, during which Mr. Alfonsin apparently hoped that the Argentine economy would turn around by itself with no change in loose and easy public policy. Instead the result was a spectacular surge of inflation that brought business close to paralysis. In that crisis Mr. Alfonsin then acted swiftly and effectively to impose a rule of austerity -- in which, incidentally, he has had broad public support. The outlook for Argentina is now much more promising. But the first year of the new government was largely lost in drift and indecision, a costly waste.
A second bad example: in 1981 the newly arrived Reagan administration wanted to help the equally new prime minister of Jamaica, the conservative Edward Seaga. The United States leaned on the IMF to relax the conditions that it was going to impose on further loans to Jamaica. In the short run, that helped Mr. Seaga's popularity. In the slightly longer run, it has contributed to continuing poor economic performance there.
Mrs. Aquino doesn't need help raising her popularity, which is dramatically high. She needs help stabilizing her country's finances. The IMF can provide some of that help. So can the commercial banks, and the United States. But the essential job, on which everything else depends, is going to have to be done by the government of the Philippines itself. Much experience in recent years throughout the world argues that foreign assistance is most effective in those countries that are following their own clear and decisive policies for growth.