Twin crises test Aquino's mettle
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - A double whammy of corruption scandals and rebellion in the southern city of Zamboanga have tested the mettle of Philippine President Benigno Aquino's leadership. While his administration has responded by emphasizing its good governance and peace initiatives for the conflict-ridden island of Mindanao, the twin crises threaten to undermine the unprecedented era of political stability and economic growth that have become the trademarks of his three-year-old administration.
In 2010 Aquino rose to power on a clean hands campaign, one that identified endemic corruption as the main culprit for the country's decades-old economic stagnation and political decay. Upon assuming the presidency, he immediately challenged the
integrity of top magistrates tied to the outgoing Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration and implicated in varying forms of corruption. Several other top-ranking officials have since taken the fall on corruption and graft allegations.
While Aquino's earlier anti-corruption efforts projected an image of change and strong leadership, he now faces a major public outcry for deeper and more systemic reforms after a number of whistleblowers highlighted widespread corruption engulfing much of the legislature and bureaucracy in early July. Dozens of high-ranking officials and veteran legislators have since been implicated in a large-scale corruption scandal, dubbed by the local media as the "mother of all scams".
Stung by the breadth of the revelations, the Aquino administration was initially at loss to respond, with the president himself taking a backseat to the media melee. With the possibility of key administration allies being charged with corruption, Aquino faced the uncomfortable option to crack down on his own legislative allies, which have been key to the passage of landmark legislation such as the Reproductive Health and Sin Tax bills, or significantly dent his corruption-busting reputation.
According to various testimonies initially submitted to the Department of Justice and the National Bureau of Investigation, up to 28 legislators allegedly used bogus non-governmental organizations to channel their discretionary "pork barrel" funds, the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), to pocket up to US$220 million in taxpayer's money over the past decade.
Major opposition stalwarts, namely senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ramon "Bong" Revilla, and even Ferdinand "Bong Bong" Marcos, were also allegedly implicated in the scandal while the Aquino administration's core leadership was largely unscathed. Revilla, Estrada, and Marcos are all widely known to have plans to challenge Aquino's favored successor, current interior secretary Manual "Mar" Araneta Roxas, at the 2016 presidential elections. By law, Aquino may serve only one term.
The situation came to head when the public demanded Aquino take a more explicit position on abolishing the pork barrel system and bring the perpetrators to justice. On August 26, marking the country's National Heroes Day, up to 75,000 Filipinos, mostly from the newly-energized middle classes, took to the streets and staged a massive rally at the iconic Luneta Park in the old-city of Manila. The rally was supported by thousands of other Filipinos staging concurrent events across the country and marked the largest protests under Aquino's watch.
The Aquino administration has since promised to place more checks and balances into its budgetary allocations, revisit the PDAF system, and decisively prosecute all implicated officials, as well as the alleged mastermind behind the scam. The senate, meanwhile, formed a Blue Ribbon Commission to gather more testimonies and clean its own house, while Aquino ordered the establishment of the Inter-Agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council to gather evidence and file charges against corrupt government officials.
In damage control mode, the government has worked to consolidate its investigations into a solid case against corrupt officials, with justice secretary Leila De Lima filing charges against 38 private individuals, including officials and lawmakers, on September 16 with the ombudsman. According to De Lima, the filing represented only the first batch of people to be charged with diversion of funds, bribery, and corruption. By some accounts, ongoing investigations suggest up to 200 lawmakers may have misappropriated their PDAF allocations.
Show of force
Just as the Aquino administration was hit with the allegations of systemic corruption, the troubled island of Mindanao exploded into violence when hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels laid siege to Zamboanga City in early September. The armed rebellion represents the biggest challenge to Aquino's drive for bringing peace to the conflict-ridden island, scuttling his ongoing negotiations with the country's largest insurgency group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Aquino flew to Zamboanga in mid-September in a bid to directly manage the conflict and bring the rebels to the negotiating table. Known for his mild demeanor, Aquino used uncharacteristically tough rhetoric in issuing an ultimatum to the rebels: "There's a thin line that can't be crossed, putting civilians' lives at risk ... When that line is crossed, I will be forced to not only show but use the full force of the state."
Failing to achieve a negotiated settlement, Aquino acted upon his word by deploying by dispatching military force, including targeted aerial assaults, against the rebels. So far Aquino's counter-offensive has freed up to 170 hostages and killed 200 rebels, according to official estimates. The siege has been largely broken and government troops are now engaged mainly in mop up operations against MNLF remnants around the city.
Though it appears the government has now gained the strategic upper-hand in Zamboanga, with the focus now shifting to reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts of the affected areas and resettlement of over 100,000 residents who fled the fighting, the whole episode has laid bare the significant pitfalls of Aquino's exclusivist approach to peace negotiations, which have focused mainly on the MILF. It is possible that the Zamboanga siege signals a return to full-blown civil war with the MNLF.
Aquino has consistently fared well in public opinion polls during his three-year-old government, with the latest Manila-based Social Weather Station's survey conducted on June 28 to 30 indicating a remarkable 75% satisfaction rating. A buoyant economy and firm stand against China's territorial assertiveness over contested features in the South China Sea have contributed to those strong ratings.
While his government was blindsided by both the PDAF scandal and Zamboanga siege, it has limited the damage by redirecting public outrage towards implicated opposition politicians and crushing the armed rebellion with a firm hand. But in the process Aquino has inevitably come to appreciate the limits of his ambitious good governance agenda and the necessity of revisiting some of his policy assumptions in seeking a comprehensive and lasting peace in Mindanao. How he re-calibrates his approach will largely determine his legacy as a popular reformer.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book From Arab Spring to Arab Summer: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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