Philippines' Pork is Rotten to the Bone

The political patronage scandal that has been unfolding inexorably in Manila for more than two months is arguably the biggest in recent Philippine history, certainly bigger than the one that drove former President Joseph Estrada from office and rivaling the excesses of the Marcos years, political observers say. It owes its magnitude to the fact that it appears to go right to the root of the way politics is conducted in this country.

The most important question is whether it can be fixed. Doing so is the responsibility of President Benigno Aquino III, a cautious reformer who may or may not be up to the job, but if he is, he could become known as one of Asia's most transformative leaders. Clearing it up will depend on his nerve, the three women he appointed to the top legal jobs and who would like to jail the offenders, and his determination, or possible lack of it, to pass a freedom of information act. If he fails, he will tarnish permanently a reputation for probity that he has been building for the past three years

The 95 million people of the Philippines, who are watching daily new revelations on television in unprecedented numbers, appear angry and frustrated enough to push him into action. A rally in Manila's Rizal Park on Aug. 26 drew an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people, urging Aquino to take action, and another rally, possibly even bigger, is scheduled for this Wednesday on the site of the two revolts along the EDSA highway that drove Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada from the presidency in 1986 and 2001, respectively.

The scandal involves Priority Development Assistance Funds, known derisorily as the Pork Barrel. Each of the country's 24 senators and 289 Congressmen receives P200 million and 70 million annually, respectively, ostensibly to fund relatively small infrastructure and other development projects. 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.

At the heart of the scandal is a 49-year-old businesswoman named Janet Lim Napoles, who used her connections to the military to establish a plethora of fake NGOs that the lawmakers used to funnel money to, with Napoles allegedly taking a 30 percent cut and funneling the rest back to the lawmakers in cash. She has since been arrested, giving herself up the president himself out of an apparent fear that she might be murdered.

According to a remarkable study by the Philippines's official 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 (US$224.9 million), much of it delivered in cash in shopping bags, supermarket bags and other conveyances. Others, seeing how successful Napoles was in creating her network, set up their own, including funds channeled through government offices in the forestry department.

According to the Audit Commission, 74 lawmakers exceeded their allocations by hundreds of millions of pesos, many using their PDAF funds for projects outside their districts, grossly deficient projects with dubious beneficiaries and questionable receipts. Auditors following up the listed addresses of the NGOs found shanties, condominium units, expensive private residences and some nonexistent addresses.

In addition to Senate Minority Leader and veteran political figure Juan Ponce Enrile, the scandal has also tarnished Interior Secretary Manuel R. Roxas, perhaps Aquino's closest political associate, and Vice President Jejomar Binay, the two leading candidates to succeed Aquino when term limits force him to step down in 2016, and possibly opening the way for a new generation of politicians to run for the top job. A third potential presidential candidate, Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has also been ensnared, reminding the country of the massive theft of public funds by his late father, who was driven from the presidency by public outrage. The president has taken pains to say Roxas's involvement was only peripheral. Nonetheless, the level of outrage is sufficient to have damaged his reputation, critics say.

"It is fair to say, in terms of the amounts of money involved and the spread of what looks like the complexity of corruption, this is one of the biggest corruption issues this country has ever seen," said Tony La Vina, dean of the school of government at Ateneo University. "I think that more than any time before there is a good chance that people will be prosecuted and convicted."

The story has taken on remarkable resonance in a country long used to scandal, at least partly because of the enormity or the wealth that Napoles, once a modest housewife in the city of Laguna south of Manila, has amassed. She is said to own 28 homes. Her 23-year-old daughter Jeane had the temerity to flaunt the family's wealth on Facebook, showing her lolling on the fender of her Porsche Boxster, cavorting with entertainer Justin Bieber, lying on the grass by the Eiffel Tower and texting from the back of a limousine. She is said to own a US$2 million apartment in the Ritz Carleton Residences on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles.

"One thing Filipinos can't stand, they are tolerant to corruption, but the moment you rub our noses in it, flaunt it, it rubs people the wrong way," said Carlos Conde, now the Philippines representative for Human Rights Watch, speaking for himself. "They feel insulted by this outrageous display. Something finally happened that kicked Filipinos in the gut. This is our taxes. These people are stealing my tax money and putting it in their pockets."

While some, including Ramon Casiple, head of the Institute for Politics and Reform, are skeptical that Aquino is up to the job of reforming the political system, Tony La Vina says it isn't up to the president.

"It is not the decision of the president to prosecute," La Vina said in an interview. Instead, it is up to the three women that Aquino appointed to office over the past three years. All appear to represent a clear departure from top officials in previous administrations.

"Outraged middle-class Catholic Filipinas can be dangerous," a longtime observer of Filipino politics said. Indeed, the three appear to be out for blood. They are Leila de Lima, a longtime Aquino ally that Aquino named as justice secretary when he took office; Conchita Campos Morales, who left the Supreme Court to become Ombudsman; and Maria Gracia M. Pulido Tan, Chairperson of the Commission on Audit, who pronounced herself "sickened" by the conclusions in the report she had commissioned and has demanded prosecution.

"They are all independent," La Vina said. "It is not the decision of the president. The Ombudsman is independent, the Secretary of Justice is assertive of her prerogatives, the chair of the Audit Commission has already shown her courage. He has said all the right things, but it really has to be seen as out of his hands."

Like much of Southeast Asia, the country has a remarkable record of impunity for prominent figures who break the law, all the way up to murder, and an inefficient court system that takes years for prosecutions. Named in public as having received cash are Enrile; Senator Jinggoy Estrada, the son of former President Joseph Estrada; Marcos; and senators Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. ,Lito Lapid, Vicente Sotto III, Gringo Honasan and at least 28 Congresspersons.

The trial of the murderers of 58 people in Maguindanao on the island of Mindanao, 34 of them journalists or media persons, in November 2009, has droned on in preliminary motions for more than three years. One of the prosecutors has estimated the trial could take 100 years. It remains to be seen how long proceedings would take against some of the country's most prominent politicians.

Where Aquino can have a real effect is changing the system. He has already been pressured into announcing that the PDAF funds would no longer go to lawmakers. If he can make that stick, a major battle will have been won against a political patronage system that has blighted the country for decades. The money will go into line item budget items.

Ramon Casiple and others interviewed by Asia Sentinel are pessimistic. The President, they say, has been stalling on the passage of a freedom of information act for more than two years. It is a piece of legislation, the critics say, that is crucial to enable the press, reform organizations and civic groups to pore through government records to determine where the money is being spent or mispent.

Aquino has demonstrated his clout and won unprecedented popularity by pushing through a historic birth control measure in the face of determined opposition by the Catholic Church. He has pushed out Renato Corona, the allegedly corrupt chief justice of the Supreme Court and replaced him with a jurist -- another woman -- of impeccable reputation. Now, the critics say, it is time for a freedom of information act. But this time he faces a congress comprised of many members accused of having had their arms in the till up to their armpits. They may be reluctant voters unless the citizenry is outside the legislature with pitchforks and staves and melting tar.