People pressure puts patronage on trial
By Richard Heydarian
MANILA - Under the reformist leadership of President Benigno Aquino III who has placed "good governance" initiatives at the heart of his administration's agenda, the Philippines has enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic revival and political stability.
The Aquino administration's decisive crackdown on high-level corruption, which earlier saw the impeachment of top magistrates implicated in the abuse of power, restored some measure of confidence in state institutions and the economy. No longer a regional lackluster, the Philippines has emerged as one of the few bright spots in Asia, growing by 7.8% in the first quarter of 2013, and is expected to grow by an average annual rate of around six percent in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the majority of the population continues to suffer
from poverty, with growing income inequality sustaining well-entrenched networks of political patronage that fuel corruption across the country.
Latest data suggests that the 40 richest families control up to 76% of the economy, the highest rate of "wealth concentration" in Asia. Such staggering levels of income inequality have had a direct impact on the political landscape, where about 178 political dynasties have continuously dominated 73 out of a total of 80 provinces in the Philippines.
Recent months, especially, have raised concerns as to the Aquino administration's ability to rein in the age-old challenge of systemic corruption. Beginning in July, a number of whistleblowers have come forward, shedding light on a US$220 million corruption scandal, dubbed by the media as the "mother of all scams".
According to the ongoing investigations, dozens of legislators have allegedly partnered with bogus non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to build ghost projects - those that only exist on paper - in order to re-channel their discretionary Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to their own pockets.
In principle, the legislators are supposed to use their PDAF for local development projects, but systemic corruption has compromised programs for rural development and empowerment of indigent communities, with some politicians, in the process, amassing staggering amounts of wealth to sustain their elaborate systems of political patronage and ensure a strong hold on power.
"Despite the reforms we have implemented, we have seen, as the events of the past weeks have shown, that greater change is necessary to fight against those who are determined to abuse the system," Aquino stated amid growing public pressure, admitting the need for more reforms. "It is time to abolish the PDAF."
Outraged by the breadth and veracity of the corruption charges, reportedly up to 75,000 Filipinos took to the streets of Manila on August 26 on National Heroes Day to demand immediate prosecution of alleged plunderers as well as the elimination of legislator's discretionary funds, the PDAF.
"The dominant emotion is anger and outrage," said Ito Rapadas, the major figure behind the nationwide anti-corruption rally. "People who are paying taxes faithfully could not accept that the money was being misused."
Across the Philippines and beyond, concurrent rallies were held in solidarity, reflecting the growing societal anger against the perceived impunity of corrupt officials. It marked the biggest protests under the current Aquino administration.
The protesters were largely unified in their conviction that the PDAF has served as not only an avenue for self-enrichment by corrupt officials, but also a means for sustaining a vicious cycle of political patronage, especially during election periods.
"President Aquino ... has the option now of continuing his anti-corruption reforms by going along with the public sentiment and ending [the PDAF]," Ramon Casiple, a leading Filipino expert on good governance issues, told IPS. "If he does that, it's tantamount to upending the entire political-patronage system in the Philippines."
Despite Aquino's historic-high approval ratings, he has understood the significance of recent rallies, and that his popularity does not equate to civic passivity. Feeling public pressure, the government has instituted more checks and balances into current fiscal allocation mechanisms.
Moreover, the government has vowed to prosecute corrupt officials. Aquino has assembled the Inter-Agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council to gather evidence and file charges against the alleged plunderers, while the Philippine Senate is overseeing a Blue Ribbon Commission to gather testimony from officials and whistleblowers in aid of prosecution.
As most experts agree, however, one of the fundamental drivers of corruption is the huge socio-economic gap between the top few of the population on one hand, and the larger masses on the other.
In the absence of secure and well-paying jobs for the majority of the people, many are forced to sell their votes during elections or beg for patronage from elected officials. This has created a culture of dependency, which has encouraged many officials to amass ill-gotten wealth to secure votes and political support among the poor, who constitute the majority of the voters.
Despite the continuous expansion in the Philippine economy, the country is largely dependent on low-end services and remittance-driven consumption as engines of growth. Lacking a diversified economy, the majority of the Philippine population is unlikely to benefit significantly from the recent economic boom.
While the recent revelations have provided a wealth of evidence and testimonies to warrant a high-profile crackdown on powerful officials, including three potential presidential candidates in the 2016 elections, many continue to see widespread poverty and inequality as the key underlying factors for systemic corruption.
Critics contend that even a successful crackdown on alleged plunderers as well as the abolition of the PDAF will not ensure a decisive reduction in corruption, for officials will vigorously seek other means to tap into state resources to secure votes. Eliminating widespread corruption, they say, will ultimately require a more egalitarian economic environment that breaks the cycle of poverty and dependency that fuels political patronage.