Contested truths in the Philippines
By Joel D Adriano
MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino, elected in May largely on an
anti-corruption ticket, has hit high hurdles trying to deliver on his campaign
trail promise to prosecute officials associated with the outgoing and
scandal-plagued Gloria Arroyo administration.
Some analysts believe his diverse and broad-based coalition could start to show
cracks as early as next year in the absence of quick and demonstrable results.
Aquino's first presidential directive after taking office in June, Executive
Order No 1, called for the establishment of a "Truth Commission" to investigate
alleged cases of corruption and abuse of power committed under Arroyo's
His second and third directives aimed to purge hundreds of "midnight
appointees" to key positions made in the waning days
of Arroyo's administration. The president's supporters have claimed the
appointments were intended to protect Arroyo against future corruption-related
prosecutions, by tactics such as covering up paper trails, once Aquino came to
The five-member commission is scheduled to weigh 23 cases involving alleged
large-scale graft and corruption, including cases implicating Arroyo and her
family. It will be headed by former Supreme Court chief justice Hilario Davide
Jr and have the power to subpoena suspects. The commission's recommendations
will be submitted to the president, congress and national ombudsman for
consideration. The nominally independent body's mandate will expire at the end
Among the cases the commission will consider is the US$329 million National
Broadband Network (NBN) deal her government tendered to Chinese telecom firm
ZTE Corp, a $14 million fertilizer fund scam, and a 2004 election scandal that
linked Arroyo to an alleged conspiracy to rig the results in her favor.
Arroyo was also listed as the prosecution's first witness in the graft trial of
former socio-economic planning secretary Romulo Neri in relation to the ZTE-NBN
deal, which was eventually aborted due to irregularities. She has sought to
quash the court's subpoena by invoking her right against self incrimination.
Arroyo now serves as a congresswoman and her political allies in congress have
already challenged the Truth Commission's mandate and legitimacy. Congressman
Edcel Lagman, a well-known Arroyo ally, recently filed a petition before the
Supreme Court questioning the legality of Aquino's first executive order.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has claimed the commission has no legal basis
because it duplicates tasks already performed by the Office of the Ombudsman,
which is charged with investigating alleged improprieties in the bureaucracy.
Politicians in Aquino's camp, on the other hand, believe that both the Supreme
Court, where 14 of the 15 justices - including the chief justice - were
appointed under Arroyo, and the ombudsman are biased in her favor. Arroyo came
under heavy criticism in May after losing the election for naming her former
aide Renato Corona as the Supreme Court's next chief justice.
The Supreme Court has blocked on legal grounds Aquino's efforts to annul
Arroyo's late appointments and has stonewalled other executive orders, moves
which threaten to paralyze the workings of the executive branch. At the same
time, the Supreme Court's credibility took a hit recently after one of its
justices was accused of plagiarizing articles from international law reviews in
authoring a key opinion in a recent case.
The Office of the Ombudsman is led by Arroyo appointee Merceditas Gutierrez, a
classmate of Arroyo's husband, Mike, who was appointed in 2005. She has been
instrumental in either delaying or dismissing corruption cases against the
Arroyos and recently asked the Supreme Court to permanently discontinue the
work of a congressional justice committee that had focused on impeachment
complaints against Arroyo.
Critics thus believe Arroyo deliberately placed her known allies into key
positions of judicial power to guard against possible legal cases after she
left office. The lower house of congress is now dominated by Arroyo's allies,
while the senate is mostly aligned with the faction of Manuel Villar Jr, who
ran against Aquino and was placed second in the May election.
On the campaign trail, Aquino accused Villar of serving as Arroyo's secret
candidate. (Arroyo's publicly supported candidate, Gilbert Teodoro Jr, her
Harvard-educated defense minister, fared poorly at the polls.)
With a strong reformist mandate, Aquino appears to be following in the
political footsteps of his late presidential mother, Corazon Aquino, who died
last year with cancer. She rose to power in 1986 on a wave of popular dissent
against decades of corrupt rule under then dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
While Benigno Aquino has said he patterned his Truth Commission after the one
South Africa created following the end of apartheid, analysts here are already
drawing comparisons to the efforts his mother made to investigate human rights
abuses and recoup public funds allegedly pilfered by Marcos, his family and
Corazon's state-sponsored commission recovered a mere US$1 billion of a
high-end estimated of $10 billion that may have been stolen and she failed to
put any of the accused behind bars. Her recovery efforts were stymied by a weak
and ineffectual justice system and calls for reconciliation to maintain
stability amid a series of coup attempts against her government.
As a low-profile senator, Benigno Aquino failed to build a strong political
base prior to running for and winning the presidency. Many political parties
and factions attached themselves to his political bandwagon when it became
clear he could leverage his family's good name into a successful bid for the
Past coalitions of convenience, however, have often splintered once public
support has waned and the government is unable to live up to its reform
promise. Significantly, Arroyo rose to power on reform hopes in the wake of
corruption charges that sparked public protests that ousted Joseph Estrada.
The commission is already shaping up into an important test of Aquino's reform
credentials. Its every move has been scrutinized by the press and opposition
and its progress or regress is expected to set the political tone of his
expected reform drive. His supporters are already drawing hopeful comparisons
to Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission, which has boasted a 100%
conviction rate and has handed prison sentences to several top former
Others perceive early signs of weakness, seen in the amnesty Aquino granted to
a group of mutinous soldiers who laid explosives around a luxury hotel and
attempted to overthrow the government in 2003. The disgruntled soldiers claimed
to be rebelling against high-level corruption in the armed forces. Former top
soldiers and police are among those who could face sanction by the commission.
Corruption and weak law enforcement are consistently cited as reasons why
foreign investors shy from the Philippines. In Transparency International's
latest global corruption index, the country rated in the "highly corrupt"
category, ranking 134 out of 178 countries. It's a hard truth Aquino's
commission is likely to have difficulty in overcoming.
Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance
journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times
and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.