Philippines’ Aquino Defends Own Pork Fund

Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III is starting to acquire tarnish from the country’s massive and continuing “pork barrel” scandal, in which scores of lawmakers siphoned off hundreds of millions of pesos from development funds and pocketed them.

The president, his popularity descending in the polls, was forced to go onto national television Wednesday night to defend his own discretionary disbursement development funds, which include a PHP2.5 billion (US$57.8 billion) social fund from the government-run Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation and another PHP130 billion in royalties from the Malampaya gas project off Palawan.

The Social Weather Stations Survey, conducted on Sept. 20-23, found 68 percent satisfied and 19 percent dissatisfied with Aquino's performance, for a net rating of +49 (percent satisfied minus percent dissatisfied), termed as good, according to the polling firm’s website. That meant his net satisfaction rating of +49 was 15 points below his very good net satisfaction rating of +64 in June and the lowest since his personal record-low score of good +42 in May 2012. It has been below +50 in only 4 out of 13 surveys since September 2010, according to the survey.

Another survey by Pulse Asia showed that the president’s approval rating dropped by 12 percentage points, from 59 to 47 immediately after the pork barrel scandal emerged. The Presidential Palace also conceded that a survey commissioned by his office also indicated a steep slide in his popularity.

Aquino requested a 12-minute simulcast from the country’s major television networks to also accuse opposition lawmakers of orchestrating a media campaign against his administration to distract attention from the bigger issue of corruption among lawmakers themselves.

“Let me make it clear: The Disbursement Allocation Program is not pork barrel,” Aquino said. “Of the DAP releases in 2011 and 2012, only 9 percent was disbursed for projects suggested by legislators. The DAP is not theft. Theft is illegal." He argued that the fund "is clearly allowed by the Constitution and by other laws," and that the funds came from legal means: savings, above-target collections and new revenues, all "results of good governance."

The pork barrel scandal, which blew up in July, is arguably the biggest in recent Philippine history. And, in a country that in the past has tended to shrug its collective shoulders at most chicanery, the public doesn’t appear to be forgetting about this one. Television viewers have been transfixed at continuing revelations over Priority Development Assistance Funds, which grant each of the country’s 24 senators and 289 congressmen receives PHP200 million and PHP70 million annually, respectively, ostensibly to fund relatively small infrastructure and other development projects. The Philippine Inquirer especially has carried daily stories detailing the spreading scandal.

In fact, much of the funds, when they didn’t simply disappear into the lawmakers’ pockets, critics say, were used to create a vast system of political patronage that welded district officials and others to individual lawmakers. A procession of whistleblowers have identified at least three Philippine senators and at least five congressmen who allegedly channeled money into their own pockets using a Chinese-Filipina businesswoman named Janet Lim-Napoles as a conduit. Napoles, who is now in jail, established a flock of fake NGOs ostensibly designed to complete the development projects, but instead channeled 30 percent of the money into her own coffers and sent the rest back to the lawmakers.

The Department of Justice has filed plunder cases against Napoles and Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla. Another 40 other government officials, including staff of lawmakers named in the charge sheet, are included in the plunder complaint. The scandal has spread well beyond Napoles to include a host of other fake NGOs as well.

Aquino has repeatedly defended his own funds. In mid-October, the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary, Ricky Carandang said there were no discussions on proposals to limit President Aquino’s use of Special Purpose Funds (SPF) and other lump sum allocations, arguing that it would take time to respond to calamities or contingencies that require congressional approval, where proposals tend to get bogged down if not looted.

Aquino is considered by international investors to be making slow if steady inroads against political corruption by cleaning up some of the institutions that allow it to flourish, including the competitive bid process for government contracts and election reform. That isn’t to say that the reform progress has been smooth, or as decisive as it could or should be. 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.

However, the country has been rewarded by upgrades by rating agencies such as Fitch and Moody’s, which cited not only improved governance but strengthening capital requirements of domestic banks, which enabled the banks to play a leading role in overall economic performance.