Philippine President Aquino’s Popularity Fades

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has run into heavy going, with his popularity rating falling to a personal low in the latest Social Weather Survey, which found 55 percent satisfied with his performance and 30 percent dissatisfied. That is 11 points off his previous performance. Another survey puts his approval rating at just 25 percent.

Aquino’s approval rating may well descend further over a threat, quickly withdrawn, to seek impeachment of the Supreme Court in regard to a decision that the government’s use of funds best described as a slush fund was illegal. The program is the Disbursement Acceleration Program, or DAP, which is run by Aquino’s longtime ally, Budget Director Florencio Abad. Among other things, Abad managed Aquino’s 2010 presidential campaign. Aquino’s detractors accuse the government of using the funds for projects different from the Congress’s original allocations.

“The key to (Aquino’s) survival right now, or at least to regain all that popularity, is to fire Abad,” a longtime political observer told Asia Sentinel. But Aquino, who has a tendency to be stubborn about getting rid of loyal but tainted or incompetent allies, has refused to accept Abad’s resignation in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

After going on television to criticize the court, Aquino later backed away, with a Malacañang Palace spokesman saying the president hadn’t intended his comments as a threat. After he engineered the impeachment of the former chief justice, Renato Corona, and put the respected Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno in Corona’s place, the court has been regarded as much cleaner than in the past. His television attack was regarded by critics as petulant and ill-advised.

The DAP fund bears a disturbing similarity to so-called Priority Development Assistance Funds whose ostensible purpose was to allow lawmakers to fund small-scale infrastructure or community projects outside the scope of the national budget. The PDAF, or the Pork Barrel, as the funds are known, have blown up into one of the biggest scandals ever in a country where political scandals are a dime a dozen. Although the funds had been in operation for three decades and Aquino, under heavy public pressure, ceased to fund them, he has suffered collateral damage.

In the Pork Barrel case, each senator was to receive P200 million (US$4.52 million at current exchange rates), and each congressman P70 million – annually. But Instead of going to fund district projects, the Pork Barrel funneled the equivalent of an estimated US$227 million to lawmakers’ pockets instead.

The reputed bag lady who organized the thievery, Janet Lim Napoles, allegedly used her political connections to establish a stable of fake NGOs that accepted money from lawmakers in exchange for undertaking projects that didn’t exist. Napoles allegedly got a 30 percent cut and funneled the rest back to the lawmakers in cash. According to a study by the Philippines Commission on Audit, over just three years from 2009 to 2012, Napoles' NGOs funded at least six senators and 26 congressmen to the tune of P10 billion, much of it delivered in cash in shopping bags, supermarket bags and designer valises. Others, seeing how successful Napoles was, set up their own networks to steal money, including funds channeled through the Forestry Department.

Three lawmakers are currently awaiting trial on charges of plunder. They are the powerful minority leader Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon “Bong” Enrile and Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada, the son of former President Joseph Estrada. Another 38 lawmakers have been implicated in the scandal, with more to come. A disk drive liberated from Napoles’ office names as many as 100 members of the legislature.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision that the Disbursement Acceleration Program was illegal, opposition lawmakers are backing impeachment complaints filed against Aquino for allegedly violating the constitution and betraying the public trust. They criticize the president for retaining Abad and failing to explain the operation of the program.

The impeachment proceedings are almost certain to fail, given the president’s overwhelming support in the Congress despite the fact that Niel Tupas Jr., chairman of the House Committee on Justice, assured journalists that any impeachment complaint filed against Aquino or Supreme Court justices would be attended with “urgency.”

Estrada and Revilla claimed they had each received PHP 50 million each in disbursement acceleration program funds six months before they voted to impeach former Justice Corona. Another P1.1 billion was disbursed from the funds six months after Corona was convicted, they allege.

It is Aquino’s prowess in rooting out corruption that gave him his heretofore high approval ratings. The country has seen its ratings from such international agencies as Moody’s and others climb after years of black marks over the administration’s efforts to put the country’s fiscal position in order.

The World Bank in its June 14 performance review noted that “In recent years, the Philippines has restored stability and proved resilient to food and fuel price hikes, the global financial crisis and recession, and the impact of typhoons and El Niño. The country’s robust economic growth as well as the government’s sound fiscal management also saw the Philippines attain investment grade status from the Japan Credit Rating Agency, following similar upgrades from major credit raters in 2012.”

The country’s debt has been pared down, driving interest rates down. He has instituted a sound tender system for government projects, first cancelling a flock of suspect ones put in place by his predecessor.

But much of that legacy is in danger because of what appears to be a wilful refusal to act to clean up the potential scandal and get rid of the individual who is regarded as having caused it. Aquino, one source wrote, for decades “has been a part of the Philippine political aristocracy. Sadly, he often acts like it.” Another source said Aquino too often acts like what she called “a spoiled brat” with little real empathy. He is also regarded as vindictive toward his political opponents and too permissive towards those of his allies, like Abad, who get in trouble.

With just two years to go before his six-year term ends, the big danger is that Aquino’s descending popularity will adversely affect whatever anointed candidate may follow him. Already Vice President Jejomar Binay, who is allied with the political machine of Joseph Estrada, who is now the Manila Mayor, is running well ahead of Manuel "Mar" Roxas, one of Aquino’s closest allies.