Aquino Continues his Political Cleanup

Although the spotlight in Manila has consistently fallen for weeks on the massive Pork Barrel scandal which has implicated dozens of lawmakers in a scheme to loot development funds for the poor, the government of President Benigno S. Aquino III has been making quiet inroads against political corruption by cleaning up some of the institutions that allow it to flourish.

Much has been written about efforts to clean up the competitive bid process for government contracts. However, an equally important area – if it isn’t more important – is election reform, which the reconstituted Commission on Elections, or Comelec, has been pursuing steadily. The system for decades has turned a blind eye to massive vote-buying , ballot box stuffing and other misuses. What has become known as the “Hello Garci scandal” took place in 2005 when a wiretapped phone call caught then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and then-Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano talking about the rigging of the 2004 national election results.

That isn’t to say that the reform progress has been smooth, or as decisive as it could or should be. Aquino himself has been accused of maintaining buckets of discretionary money to fund pork barrel projects of his own. He has also been accused of moving far too slowly to clean up corruption on the part of his administration, and of leaving cronies in place after they have been unmasked.

In surveys released earlier this week, for instance, it appears that the pork barrel funding scandal has cut sharply into Aquino’s trust rating, with the Manila-based Social Weather Stations polling organization reporting his previously astronomical trust ratings had dropped from “very good” in June to merely “good” in September. Pulse Asia found that 67 percent believe corrupt practices during the Arroyo administration have continued under Aquino.

There is plenty of work to be done. Social Weather Stations in 2012 rated public perceptions of Comelec to be on a par with levels of corruption with the Philippine National Police, the Bureaus of Internal Revenue and Customs and the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Aquino caused initial consternation by appointing as Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes, who as a private lawyer defended both deposed former President Joseph Estrada and Andal Ampatuan Jr, the purported mastermind behind the 2010 murders of more than 50 people, including 35 journalists, in what has become known as the Maguindanao Massacre. Brillantes, however, has been at the center of two decisions cleaning up the electoral process, and he has sought vainly to purge the so-called party lists of bogus political groups.

The party lists were established by the 1987 reform constitution to allow under-represented sectoral groups, such as labor, peasants, the urban poor, indigenous cultural communities, women and youth to participate in the electoral system. However, the system has been commandeered by elected officials who have created their own camouflaged parties as allies in the party lists, funding their candidatures through patronage and outright vote buying

Aquino also appointed Luie Guia, executive director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections, and Al Parreño, a board member of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB), as new Comelec commissioners. Both are considered above reproach and they have given Aquino a majority on the commission.

The Manila-based country risk firm Pacific Strategies and Assessments, in an Oct. 21 report, pointed out that the administration postponed two elections in 2011 to clean voter lists in Mindanao of the names of more than 280,000 dead, under age or multiple registrants, and has followed that up with a number of other institutional reforms.

“A barometer of the Aquino administration’s sincerity in improving the electoral system is its ability to push for legislation that can further empower the Commission on Elections and update election laws,” according to the PSA report, which is available only to subscribers. “There is a need to make the existing campaign finance regulations realistic and to amend the 28-year-old Omnibus Elections Code to integrate poll automation issues and violations.”

Comelec in September disqualified a local governor allied with the party headed by current Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, from office for campaign overspending and in October disqualified four other local politicians for vote-buying . To opposition accusations that the disqualifications were politically motivated, Aquino pointed out that two of the prohibitions, from a municipality in Bulacan province, were from his own Liberal Party.

“The quality of future leadership in the Philippines is dependent on electoral reforms that enable the commission to weed out candidates involved in illicit activities and eventually improve the caliber of political leaders,” the PSA report said. “An improved electoral system contributes to political stability and restores the public’s trust in the power of the ballot to remove underperforming and corrupt officials.”