Was President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s October 30 speech defending his Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) a wise move? There is much discussion about that inside and outside the Palace, with Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa reportedly at odds with Liberal Party stalwarts Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas and Senate President Franklin Drilon.
Having gone through even more explosive political unrest in the past administration and co-authored a book on crisis management then, this writer sees presidential speeches as one similarity between the 2005 Hello Garci controversy and today’s brouhaha over DAP and the pork barrel Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). In both instances, the Chief Executive personally responded to growing public criticism in a nationally televised statement— and made things worse.
On June 27, 2005, exactly three weeks after the Palace itself publicly raised the issue of wiretapped conversations allegedly between then-President Gloria Arroyo and then-Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, she admitted calling a poll official, but denied manipulating the vote count. That ill-advised statement was widely misunderstood by the public and repeatedly twisted by critics and media as a confession to cheating in the 2004 elections.
Last week Aquino sought to counter DAP attacks by insisting it was legal and properly spent. “PNoy: I’m Not A Thief,” headlined a leading erstwhile pro-Aquino daily. Like Arroyo’s statement, however, Aquino’s remarks are also being widely misconstrued, this time as a defense of both PDAF and DAP. (Interestingly, Senator Franklin Drilon, who was and is Senate President during both crises, has been cited by insiders as a key adviser to both Arroyo and Aquino in their speeches.)
Back in 2005, ordinary Filipinos could not appreciate Arroyo’s fine point of calling an election official but not manipulating the vote count. Most people never heard her speech, but got wind of it from news and commentary. One tabloid headline blared “Umamin Na!” or “she has confessed,” leaving readers to guess what she admitted to, and many mistakenly thought that she owned up to poll fraud.
And leading network ABS-CBN repeatedly aired commercials for its ANC cable news channel splicing Arroyo’s “I am sorry” footage with the raging retort by actress Susan Roces, wife of the late action superstar Fernando Poe Jr. “You stole the presidency not once, but twice!” thundered Roces in the video clip, referring not only to her late husband’s 2004 presidential election loss to Arroyo, but also to the latter’s assumption of the presidency after the ouster of Joseph Estrada in 2001. That only reinforced the public’s misunderstanding of the “Sorry” speech.
Today, amid nationwide outrage over billions of pesos in reported PDAF “commissions” taken by legislators and conniving operators, Aquino’s repeated insistence on DAP’s legality and propriety is coming across to many Filipinos as a wrong-headed and arrogant attempt to justify and continue one and the same corrupt practice, variously known as PDAF, DAP and pork barrel.
It doesn’t help Malacañang’s effort to distinguish between congressional and presidential funds in the public mind that the President was recently headlined bristling over the label “Pork Barrel King.” Moreover, leading newspapers have not been as supportive of Aquino as they had been on other issues.
The above-cited headline denying thievery sounds defensive and recalls the late American President Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” protestation before he had to resign over the 1972 Watergate scandal, in which the White House tried to cover up a break-in at the campaign operations center of the rival Democratic Party.
The paper also gave front-page coverage to an anti-pork barrel group of business process outsourcing employees, which would normally have been too marginal to mention. The online protests by BPO staffers showed how the public saw PDAF and DAP as the same crooked scheme. Meanwhile, the two other top dailies bannered the Palace’s refusal to back down on the issue, rather than DAP’s supposed legality.
With the reported plan for Aquino to mount provincial sorties defending the fund, expect more news and commentary portraying him as stubbornly clinging to his hundreds of billions of pesos in discretionary spending in the face of public anger. Media will also feature accounts, video and photos of protests against Aquino, PDAF and DAP at places he will speak. Such primetime and frontpage reports will further identify him with both controversial funds.
The President and his administration would also be seen as opposing the spreading clamor to abolish DAP, PDAF and other monies disbursed without specific budgetary allocations. That sentiment now has a public face and a clear action plan with the newly mounted campaign to ban them led by former Chief Justice Reynato Puno. If Congress won’t scrap the allocations, he argues, then Filipinos can use the people’s initiative to push for a constitutional ban.
In sum, as the top-circulation newspaper headlined the day after its “I’m not a thief” banner, the PDAF and DAP controversy won’t fade anytime soon. Especially with President Aquino himself keeping it in the news with his sorties. If that’s not counterproductive enough, his loud insistence on DAP’s legality makes it hard for the Supreme Court to agree with him without being seen as kowtowing.
Wasted Chief Executive time
Meanwhile, public and media may see his forays across the archipelago as precious Chief Executive time wasted amid many national problems, such as September’s rise in self-rated poverty and food-poverty from August last year, despite surging economic growth. Notably, in July 2005 the Hyatt 10 group of top Arroyo officials resigned and called on her to quit, claiming she was unable to properly govern due to her preoccupation with the political crisis.
Several of that group are in Aquino’s Cabinet, including Abad, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Juliano-Soliman, and Peace Process Secretary Teresita Deles, plus Local Water Utilities Administration head Rene Villa, and Commission on Filipinos Overseas chief Imelda Nicolas. Backing them in 2005 were Senate President Drilon and Aquino’s late mother Corazon.
Today, the former Hyatt 10 will not lambast President Aquino for obsessing with DAP to the neglect of more pressing priorities.
But they’d better not ask the Filipino people.