Philippine Pork and its Many Bedfellows

The Philippines' multibillion dollar Pork Barrel, the center of a massive and growing scandal, is a river of money that enriches those most at its confluence but then flows down to mayors and other local political leaders, corrupting the democratic process as it goes, with a trickle eventually reaching impoverished voters in the form of favors and benefits intended to buy loyalty for the local congressman.

The Pork Barrel, formally known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), provides each of the country's 24 senators with P200 million (US$4.8 million) per year, or P1.2 billion for an entire six-year term. Congressional representatives receive P70 million per year, or P210 million for their three year terms.

For months, attention has been riveted on the activities of Janet Lim Napoles, who made herself and her family massively rich after she set up a series of phony NGOs that were the recipients of PDAF funds that were then apparently recycled back to the lawmakers in cash after Napoles took a 30 percent cut. That story has been told extensively and is the subject of an official government audit report; at least six senators and 28 congressmen could be liable for criminal charges.

Mother's Milk

But the other part of the story is how these funds  even when "properly" used  perpetuate an almost unbreakable system, helping to create a long chain of political dynasties. In effect the PDAF has been a government-funded way to sustain a corrupt and feudal system.

The way the funds are used illustrates the enormous difficulty of ending or reforming a system that makes a truism of the phrase that money is the mother's milk of politics. The funds were intended to finance rural development projects for constituents but investigations have shown that while many districts benefit from them, more often they are used as a method of delivering patronage and furthering the business interests of powerful local families.

The poorly audited PDAF funds and other sources of money that flow down from lawmakers to district officials or mayors are sometimes used to fund outright illegal operations including smuggling of drugs or weapons and munitions sales, according to a former military officer, virtually unstoppable by an outmanned, outgunned and often corrupt customs service trying to police an archipelago of 7,100 islands, about 2,000 of which are inhabited.

"It depends on [local officials'] proclivities for certain activities," said a former high-ranking military officer. "When I was assigned to Bicol as commander, we would arrest people who were using explosives to fish with, which is illegal. Nine of 10 bought their explosives from the mayor. We didn't make arrests; we just terminated them right then and there in the water. If you turned them over to the mayor, he'd just turn them loose."

Changing Money into Power

"In essence it is money laundering," is how one well-wired source described the pork barrel to Asia Sentinel. "Some of it goes for legitimate purposes. But it is converting money into political influence. If a certain district would like a certain project, a small clinic, a basketball court, a rice-drying shed, a paved street or a bridge, the congressman does it and puts his name on it."

Some, as with the lawmakers tied to Napoles, seemingly just pocketed the money, which is what has fueled so much public anger over the current scandal.

But PDAF funds themselves, some say, fill a gap for an inefficient and underfunded central government struggling to meet an extensive array of needs for a poverty-stricken electorate. Pork offers a politically popular shortcut to bring some benefits to the village. In this view, the development funds function imperfectly but at least they function.

The problem, critics say, is that even when the PDAF funds are used properly, they tend to go to the areas where lawmakers can find pockets of votes. Often those areas are not the ones most in need. So the richest -- or at least the most populous  part of a congressman's district is likely to be the beneficiary.

"If you go to the provinces, the rural areas, if you have money, people want to ask for favors or a handout from their politicians. The politicians employ it to gain patronage. The unfortunate thing is that it doesn't take much money to buy votes during election time," said an authority on local government.

If a politician goes to a funeral -- de rigueur almost everywhere -- he will tell an assistant to leave money. That may come from PDAF monies or other congressional allowances. There is an endless string of weddings, baptisms, supermarket grand openings, small favors to be dispensed and given the traditional feudal Filipino relationship of the upper classes to the lower ones; money has to be handed out everywhere.

Feudalism is as Feudalism Does

The PDAF funds are a symptom of a system that perpetuates existing political dynasties and helps create new ones -- many of them outside the famous handful of aristocratic Mestizo families that have ruled the country for centuries. The Marcos era created its own dynasties and the restoration of democracy since the People Power rebellion of 1986 has created still others.

Of course, Pork Barrel funds alone are not sufficient, dynasties need lots of money and they arise out of many sources  landed wealth, proximity to power, business acumen or political cunning. Often political power is just one leg of a multi-pronged family strategy that sees having a congressional seat in the hands of son or daughter as a useful adjunct to other business interests.

Recent dynasties where sons and daughters are coming to the fore include Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile and Speaker of the House Feliciano Belmonte Jr, who are the patriarchs of political dynasties in Cagayan Province and Quezon City, respectively. Of the 24 senators in the upper house, 15 come from such dynasties, according to an exhaustive new report (available by subscription only) by Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a Manila-based political risk consultancy.

"Three senators are children of former presidents," the report notes: "JV Ejercito and Jinggoy Estrada, the sons of former president and incumbent Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada; and Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr, son and namesake of the deceased President Marcos," according to the report. "Eight other senators in the 16th Congress are children of former national elected officials, and are members of long-entrenched political dynasties in the Philippines."

They include Pia and Alan Peter Cayetano, children of the former senator Rene Cayetano, who ruled over Taguig City in Metro Manila; Nancy Binay, daughter of Vice President Jejomar Binay, a former anti-Marcos human rights lawyer whose family has controlled Makati City since 1986; Juan Edgardo Angara, son of former Senator Edgardo Angara of Aurora Province; Sergio Osme?a, III, son of former Senator Sergio Osme?a, Jr and grandson of former President Sergio Osme?a, whose family holds power in Cebu Province; Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III, son of Aquilino Pimentel, Jr, a national and local political figure from Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao; Teofisto "TG" Guingona III, son of former senator and vice president Teofisto Guingona, Jr.; and the "acting dynasty" Ramon "Bong" Revilla, Jr, the actor-son of action star and former senator Ramon Revilla, Sr.

They are hardly alone. Some 70 percent of the 287 members of the 15th Congress that came to power in 2010 came from political families, according to an Asian Institute of Management (AIM) study, Dynasties in Democracies: the Political Side of Inequality.

"If you have money, you have access to arms and equipment that is not difficult to get," said Mars Buan, the PSA analyst who wrote the report. "Some politicians do diversify, going into arms smuggling or drug dealing. The Ampatuans [the clan charged with being responsible for gunning down 56 people including political opponents and journalists in Mindanao in 2009] became strong because of arms and drugs. The key is that you have money and others don't."

"I don't see any hope of system reform," said the former military officer. "I am lucky to survive and live well, but the rest of the Philippines really doesn't have very much hope. You take Singapore. Singapore is clean because it is easy to run. But here, how do you reform 96 million people? It is a complicated issue. The power elite may feel they may have to make concessions if they feel the need. But they will hold the levers of power. They know what to do to keep it."