With barely a week before May 10, Filipinos everywhere would have seen and heard more than enough of the elections – the muck, the dirt, the candidates’ profiles, the agenda, the promises and the projections, all thrown into a sticky mix of hope, propaganda and entertainment. Being this close to crunch time, the political climate has been so polarized that it is difficult to say anything without receiving an enthusiastic endorsement or an impassioned rebuttal. If the amount of interest, especially among the youth and particularly the new voters, is any indication, this political exercise at least draws out encouraging participation – a prelude to active citizenship that can only be good for the country. There are also signs that political gimmickry needs to be more sophisticated to stick, and that media exposure alone does not guarantee approval. There is the usual fare of partisan follies, the scare of failed elections, and controversial survey ratings – all contested in this season of the most popular contest of all. Behold an expression of formal democracy, Philippine-style.
What makes this election unique is the public clamour to bring closure to the many controversies and scandals that smudged the nine-year administration of Mrs. Arroyo. There is a strong sense of exacting accountability and demanding justice for all the wrongs that were spawned by a much-maligned administration. It is a demand for both catharsis and cure, something imperative as we dream of building this nation again.
Why Prosecuting GMA is an election issue
Over the years, Filipinos have come to accept that corruption is a part of Philippine politics. But history has shown that if the indications of culpability were strong,
|Rating the Candidates:
Prosecution as Platform
Benigno Aquino, Jr.: ¾ shade
Manny Villar: ¼ shade
Joseph Estrada: No shade
Gilbert Teodoro: No shade
Richard Gordon: 1/4 shade
Villanueva: ¾ shade
Jamby Madrigal: 1/2 shade
Nicanor Perlas: No shade
JC de los Reyes: No shade
people are moved to do something. This happened in EDSA 1986 – sobra na, tama na! was the call against Marcos. This also happened in EDSA Dos when Filipinos saw firsthand how the paper trail of corruption led directly to Mr. Estrada.
President Arroyo’s incumbency has been hounded by highly publicized controversies. The Senate investigations on the ZTE and the fertilizer scam, extensively covered by media, gave the public access to testimony and documentation of corruption.
The people have shown their frustration through the negative net approval ratings for President Arroyo. President Arroyo’s net approval ratings plummeted from a +24 in March 2001 to a -38 in December 2009, with a consistently negative rating since March 2004. The overwhelming win of the united opposition in the 2004 vote was a vote against Mrs. Arroyo. The outpouring of emotions and show of support when President Aquino died represented a people mourning the loss of who for them was the last moral leader this country had. In the elections, the weak showing of administration candidate Gilberto Teodoro also relates to the perception of high level corruption and misrule under GMA’s presidency.
For this reason the issue of prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo after she steps down from the Presidency becomes an urgent election topic. How the candidates respond to this issue signals whether there will be concrete steps to pursue corruption cases involving the GMA presidency. A stand leaving the matter to the institutions concerned signals that there will be no active effort on the part of the executive to pursue cases. A stand to pursue investigations and to resolve the issue signals greater commitment. It also indicates what we may expect to be the attitude of the leadership towards corruption during their incumbency, in terms of tolerance and in terms of the level of priority that will be given to governance reforms to address corruption.
A Note on Corruption
Corruption is neither the only nor the main reason for our economic woes, but it does imply direct economic costs.
First, corruption results in the loss of significant resources that could have been available for productive activities and social services. The World Bank estimated that in the twenty year period between 1977 and 1997, the Philippines lost US$48 billion. In a speech in May 2006, Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrrez claimed that we lost the same amount to corruption in only five years from 2001 to 2005.
Second, corruption scares foreign and domestic investors alike. In the 2009 Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the Philippines ranked 139th out of 180 countries ranked from the least to the most corrupt (Somalia and Afghanistan were most corrupt in this series). In 2008, according to the World Bank Control of Corruption Indicator, the Philippines was less able to control corruption than ¾ of all the countries included in the series.
Third, corruption increases the cost of doing business in the country. In 2008, the Social Weather Stations Survey of Enterprises reported that seven out of ten local firms were approached by a government official or employee for bribes. This is not an encouraging sign for local business that kept shrinking. Gross domestic investment as a percent of gross domestic product has consistently fallen under Mrs. Arroyo’s term, from 19% in 2001 to 14% in 2009.
Corruption in and of itself does not alone cause an economy to fail or for poverty to worsen, but its pervasive presence detracts from addressing these issues. It distorts the incentives for seeking public office, where the public interest becomes secondary to self-interest. Public office becomes an opportunity, where the prospects for earning big through irregular means can be big. Take for instance the fertilizer fund scam – fertilizers and farm inputs, ostensibly to help an ailing agricultural sector, were purchased at ten times their real costs. The NBN-ZTE deal also highlighted the income-generating possibilities from big infrastructure projects, as evidenced by the estimated US$130 million overprice.
Corruption subverts and discredits the government’s regulatory institutions. This results in the low confidence and approval ratings of public agencies, which undermines the capacity of government to do economic policy in the long run. Many even in the bureaucracy would favour private operations over public, precisely because of the corruption issue. Many would erroneously equate the corruption in government with the ineffectiveness or undesirability of public provisioning, or of even greater concern, of public intervention in the economic sphere. The distrust in government translates to a distrust of public policy. Corruption has to be addressed so that government can enjoy wider support for bolder economic and social policies.
Finally, addressing corruption and prosecuting those who were involved in the weakening of our institutions is also about justice. Boundaries may and probably have been overstepped and laws violated. Public office should never cloak crimes or be used as protection for criminals.
The Spectre of GMA as Speaker
In a tragic-comic twist,
Mrs. Arroyo decided that her home district in Pampanga needed her support, and
the best way for her to give it is to run to be its Representative. Many criticized
this move by the President, saying that this is an unconscionable and desperate
attempt to perpetuate herself in power, a brazen ploy to avoid prosecution
after her term, and a pathetic stunt that smacks of a lack of delicadeza
Mrs. Arroyo said and did so many objectionable things in the past, that running for a Congressional seat seems not as atrocious. But is it?
Being a member of Congress does not give the Mrs. Arroyo the same immunity that she enjoys as the incumbent President. However, it gives her a platform for political and personal objectives.
There are a number of privileges and prerogatives that a member of Congress can use for various objectives, such as:
· the pork barrel – everybody knows that having resources at your disposal goes a long way
· a guarantee of free speech and debate (no member of Congress may be questioned nor be held liable in any other place for any speech or debate in Congress or in any of its committees) – she can use privilege speeches to defend herself, or to attack those prosecuting her
· legislative inquiry – this can be used to put political pressure on the Executive, and anybody who might testify against her or her allies in the courts
· legislation – this can be used to block the new administration’s priorities, frustrating its legislative agenda, and making reforms an uphill struggle every step of the way
This is especially true if, given her background as a former President, she could also lead a sizable faction in the House of Representatives, and even be the Speaker of the House. She could leverage greater bargaining power. And given the long history of compromises in Philippine politics, one can only hope that prosecution for past misdeeds would not fall prey to political jockeying.
Many predict that once a new President is sworn in, and in all likelihood it would not be Mrs. Arroyo’s bet, the political configuration in Congress will change. Politicians will switch party lines and enter into a coalition with the new administration, all for that plum committee membership or chairmanship, and the much-desired pork barrel. And because of this, Mrs. Arroyo’s Speakership is a long shot.
Perhaps, but here a note of caution is needed. The turncoatism of Filipino politicians, their predilection to abandon party principles for political exigency, is precisely one of the reasons why our political growth has been stunted. Real healthy debates, except the partisan type, rarely happen in Congress, because its Members are more concerned with keeping their perks than with carefully scrutinizing what goes on the floor. The Lower House has also long lost its independence, often becoming a lackey of Malacanang.
It is important to
restore the independence of Congress, esp. of the House of Representatives.
Uncritical defence of an administration is as dangerous and as unproductive as
petty political bickering. Beyond the numbers, what the next administration
needs is a coherent reform agenda, a broad coalition of groups to push for this
agenda, and clear plans for dealing with the impact of and defending the fruits