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Philippines pork barrel scam and contending ideologies of accountability

By Garry Rodan


When Benigno Aquino III was elected Philippine President in 2010, combating entrenched corruption was uppermost on his projected reform agenda. Hitherto, it has been unclear what the full extent and nature of reform ambitions of his administration might be. The issue has now been forced by ramifications from whistleblowers’ exposure of an alleged US$224 scam involving discretionary funds by Congress representatives. Fallout has already put some prominent Senators in the hot seat, but will deeper and more systemic reforms follow?

A crucial but often overlooked factor shaping prospects for reform in the Philippines, and elsewhere, is contestation over the meaning and purposes of accountability. Accountability means different things to different people. Even authoritarian rulers increasingly lay claim to it. Therefore, whether it is liberal, moral or democratic ideology that exerts greatest reform influence matters greatly.

Liberal accountability champions legal, constitutional, and contractual institutions to restrain the ability of state agencies to violate the political authority of the individual. Moral accountability ideologues emphasize how official practices must be guided by a moral code, invoking religious, monarchical ethnic, nationalist, and other externally constituted political authority. Democratic accountability ideologies are premised on the notion that official action at all levels should be subject to sanction, either directly or indirectly, in a manner promoting popular sovereignty.

Anti-corruption movements usually involve coalitions incorporating all three ideologies. However, governments tend to be least responsive to democratic ideologies because their reforms are directed at fundamental power relations. The evolving controversy in the Philippines is likely to again bear this out.

Dollars in envelope

What whistleblowers exposed in July 2013 was an alleged scam masterminded by business figure Janet Lim Napoles. Money was siphoned from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or ‘pork barrel’ as it is popularly known, providing members of Congress with substantial discretionary project funding.

This funding has been integral to political patronage and corruption in the Philippines, precisely why ruling elites have hitherto resolutely defended PDAF despite many scandals and controversies linked to it.

However, public reaction to this scam was on a massive scale. Social and mass media probing and campaigning combined with the ‘Million People March’ in Manila’s Rizal Park involving a series of protests starting in August 2013. After initially defending PDAF despite his anti-corruption platform, Aquino announced PDAF’s abolition. Subsequently, the Supreme Court reversed three earlier rulings to unanimously declare the PDAF unconstitutional for violating the separation of powers principle.

Then, on 1 April 2014, the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) announced it found probable cause to indict three opposition senators – including the powerful Juan Ponce Enrile, who served as Justice Secretary and Defense Minister under Marcos and Senate President from 2008 until June 2013 – for plunder and multiple counts of graft for kickbacks or commissions channeled through bogus non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

These are the Philippines’ first senatorial indictments for plunder, conviction for which can lead to life imprisonment. Napoles and various state officials and employees of NGOs face similar charges. Aquino’s rhetoric about instituting clean and accountable governance is translating into action. But which ideologies are exerting greatest influence and what are the implications?

Moral ideology influences were evident under Aquino even before the abolition of PDAF through new appointments to enhance the integrity of key institutions. Conchita Morales, selected by the President in mid-2011 as the new Ombudsman, was strongly endorsed by Catholic Church leaders. Aquino also appointed Heidi Mendoza as a commissioner to the Commission of Audit. Mendoza played a vital whistleblower role leading to the resignation of the previous Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and was depicted by the Church as a moral role model for Christians.

However, there have been many episodes in the past where authorities have selectively pruned ‘bad apples,’ but with a focus on those from competing political or economic orchards. Will Aquino this time go beyond appeals to moral ideology and intra-elite combat to progress liberal institutional reform?

The accused senators ask why they have been singled out from 40 named criminally liable following the whistleblowers’ claims, inferring political persecution. Yet if continuing investigations lead to charges against people closer to the administration it would indicate not. In a clear alignment with liberal ideology, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma recently raised expectations of such a change: ‘We are a government of laws, not of men. Let rule of law take its course.’

The jury is still out too on just how substantive the institutional change to the PDAF will prove. The President’s own pork barrel lump sum appropriations in the national budget are unaltered, despite public calls for it too to go. Indeed, some argue the President is now even more powerful a pork dispenser through de facto PDAF concentration in his hands.

PDAF’s abolition is also in a transitional phase with the 2014 budget taking account of existing PDAF commitments. The P25-billion PDAF was directed to the major public funding implementing agencies incorporating these commitments on a line item basis. There is a risk, though, that a precedent has been set for legislators’ pet projects to be negotiated with departmental heads in private rather than scrutinized in the legislature.

Certainly the coalition for change is building. Alongside popular forces, internationally competitive globalized elements of the Philippines bourgeoisie are a growing support base for liberal accountability ideology. Yet longstanding inaction on corruption reflects entrenched power structures inside and outside Congress antithetical to the routine and institutionalized promotion of liberal and, especially, democratic accountability.

Thus, while the instigation of official action on the pork barrel scam following the whistleblowers’ actions is testimony to the power of public mobilizations and campaigns, there are serious obstacles to more effective accountability institutionalization promoting popular sovereignty.

Acute concentrations of wealth and social power in the Philippines not only affect relationships between public officials and some elites, they also fundamentally constrain political competition. Oligarchs enjoy massive electoral resource advantages including the capacity for vote buying and other questionable campaign strategies. Outright intimidation, including extrajudicial killings of some of the most concerted opponents of elite rule and vested interests, remains widespread.

Therefore, parallel with popular anti-pork demands is yet another push for Congress to pass enabling law to finally give effect to the provision in the 1987 Constitution to ban political dynasties. The proliferation of political dynasties and corruption has been mutually reinforcing. Congressional dominance by wealthy elites and political clans shapes the laws overseen by officials, the appointment of those officials and, in turn, the culture and practices of public institutions.

When Congress resumes sessions in May, it will have before it the first Anti-Dynasty Bill to have passed the committee level. Public mood has made it more difficult for the rich and powerful in Congress to be as dismissive as previously of such reform attempts. The prospects of the current Bill passing are nevertheless dim but the struggle for democratic accountability will continue.

Garry Rodan is Professor of Politics & International Studies at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Australia and the co-author (with Caroline Hughes) of The Politics of Accountability in Southeast Asia: The Dominance of Moral Ideologies.

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Image credit: Dollars in envelope. By OlgaLIS, via iStockphoto.

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