Triumph of the Swill: Why Philippine Pork Matters

On the face of it, the great Pork Barrel Scandal in the Philippines has all the comic opera flourishes that mark so much of the country's political theater. There are bags of cash and funny nicknames, at least one kidnapping, witnesses hiding out in safe houses, televised hearings and tens of thousands of people marching in protest over the mess.

Even the name of the scandal lends itself to clever puns. One favorite of mine plays off of a famous slogan from the leftist student movement of the 1960s: Makibaka wag matakot, or "Dare to struggle," is turned on its head with the words Makibaka wag magbaboy, which roughly translates as "Don't be a pig." And T-shirts bearing the image of pigs are now all the rage in Manila.

Behind the humor, however, a real test is emerging of whether the Philippines can take itself seriously as a nation ruled by law. The key player, who has so far been largely quiet, will likely turn out to be President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, who must see to it that what has started with outraged calls for justice does not dissolve into farce like so many other episodes in Philippine political life.

The scandal arose out of the misappropriation of funds given to legislators under the government's institutionalized pork barrel scheme, the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). Under the long-running program, each of the country's 24 senators receives 200 million pesos ($4.5 million) per year and each of its 300-odd congressmen receives 70 million pesos with the intention that the money will be spent for rural development in their constituencies.

A series of recent revelations have alleged that a well-connected businesswoman, Janet Lim-Napoles, created a network of phony non-governmental organizations for politicians to channel their pork to her so that she could channel most of it right back to them, building no development projects but taking a healthy cut for herself.

About 10 billion pesos, or roughly $225 million, was involved over a period of a decade -- enough, reports say, for Lim-Napoles to buy 28 houses, many handbags, a Porsche and a luxury condo in Los Angeles for her daughter, who spent time partying with Justin Bieber. An aide to Napoles blew the whistle on the mess, but first he had to escape her clutches because he was allegedly kidnapped to keep him silent.

The news has galvanized social media networks, led to huge demonstrations and turned the scandal into the biggest political upheaval in the Philippines since the ouster of the late President Ferdinand Marcos nearly 30 years ago.

Witnesses are coming out the woodwork, a government audit report has named 28 congressmen and five senators and Aquino has been forced to back away from talk about "reforming" the system and instead call for dismantling the pork scheme. Lim-Napoles recently surrendered herself to Aquino personally and has been charged with illegally detaining Benhur Luy, one of her top employees and the principal whistleblower in the scandal.

Many of the names involved are familiar figures in Philippine politics, including Senator Bongbong Marcos, the son of Ferdinand Marcos, and Senator Jinggoy Estrada, the son of former President Joseph Estrada. President Aquino's chief political ally and advisor, Interior Secretary Manuel A. Roxas II, has also been named in a government audit from the time he served in the senate. Most startling are mounting allegations against Senate minority leader Juan Ponce Enrile, 89, arguably the country's most influential political insider over the last 50 years.

Enrile was in Marcos's cabinet and as defense secretary was a prime architect of Martial Law. In 1986, he led a failed coup against Marcos that quickly morphed into the People Power rebellion that brought Noynoy Aquino's mother Cory Aquino to power as president. Rebel officers linked to Enrile later led several coup attempts against Cory Aquino, but Enrile himself was never charged with any crimes. Indeed, his decades in power and the many secrets he is presumed to hold have appeared to render him immune from the law.

It is thus startling to read accounts of witnesses saying they delivered stacks of cash to Enrile's chief aide and to see his name flashed on TV screens in news accounts detailing the government audit report into the scam. No one has yet been charged with any crimes related to the pork barrel funds.

There have been many tawdry scandals in the Philippines, but a creaky legal system rarely brings the powerful to account. This could be different, perhaps because it is so brazen. "We called it ‘going to market,'" recalled Merlina Suñas, who was the president of one of the phony NGOs. "We'd stuff the money into a Samsonite traveling bag," Suñas told a local newspaper, and use forged documents to account for projects that did not exist. "We just did our job, and we got paid for it," Suñas said. Apparently, the main logistical difficulty was simply moving cash from one mansion to another in Manila.

Public anger is focused on this scandal like few others perhaps because the entire political system seemed to conspire to allow politicians and their partners to so easily steal government funds intended to build things like schools and roads. These were not 15 per cent mark-ups on power plants or bribes in return for government contracts.

Having crossed a line that has outraged a great many people, the pork barrel politicians have much to answer for. And Aquino has likely reached a defining moment in his presidency. Will he prove himself equal to the task of seeing not just political enemies but also friends suffer the consequences of their possible involvement in this thievery?

As the son of one of the country's most powerful landed families, Noynoy is a born aristocrat, as was his mother and his martyred politician father. Cory Aquino, beloved as she was for restoring democracy, ruled as an aristocrat and did little to change the systems of power and patronage that define the Philippines. Pork may now give her only son the chance to nudge his country in a different direction.

(Reprinted with permission from Edge Review, a new weekly digital magazine on Southeast Asia.)