I’m going to make a slight diversion from the usual business and economic fare for today’s column, and take a look at what is—or at least what ought to be—the biggest political issue in the Philippines right now: growing public anger over the widespread, multi-faceted corruption scandal that has affected nearly every part of the government.
Awareness that the issue is growing and potentially puts a president who has heretofore consistently been characterized as “anti-corruption” in an uncomfortable position is starting to seep into the reports of foreign media, and that has given people here in the Philippines some hope that pressure on the Aquino Administration to “do something” about the scandal is growing.
Ideally, that “something,” although not effectively articulated by many at this point, would be the immediate removal from office and prosecution of the officials fingered by “whistle-blowers”—insiders of the long-running multiple scams who have turned informants—a list of accused that includes at least 20 senators, 100 or more congressmen, seven or eight key Cabinet officials, and perhaps even President B.S. Aquino 3rd himself.
But despite the ongoing public furor here and the increasing number of concerned observations from outside the country that the scandals are beginning to unproductively occupy all the government’s time, there is little chance that any significant changes will occur in the remaining two years of Aquino’s term. He and his affected officials will remain securely in their positions, and while one or two more cosmetic actions may have to be taken to placate some of the population (and provide the Administration’s public relations team some material to work with), there should be no concern among business people already here and potential investors that the risk of political instability, which is presently very low, has increased at all.
An obvious example of the evidence for this was the minimal impact of protests that took place on Thursday, the Philippines’ Independence Day. The main demonstration was held at the Bonifacio Shrine in Manila, and featured a protest march from there to Malacañang Palace, where demonstrators demanded that the government should “jail all plunderers.” A smaller demonstration was staged by leftist groups in front of the US Embassy, for reasons that were not entirely clear to anyone, perhaps not even the protesters themselves, and a lone protester, a student from a local university, managed to briefly disrupt President Aquino’s speech in Naga City, Camarines Sur before being roughly arrested by the President’s security detail.
Local media dutifully reported on the protests, but what was most telling was the virtual absence of social media chatter, particularly about the main protest march in Manila, which had received quite a significant build-up beforehand by its supporters and even some local columnists. Although the turnout was likely affected by the inclement weather, it was still surprisingly low—perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 people at its peak late Thursday evening—and apparently did not make much of an impression even on its participants.
In a text message, benign0, who is the webmaster of Get Real Philippines (available at http://getrealphilippines.com/blog/), probably the most widely-read of the “alternative” media that has been chronicling the corruption scandal saga, offered some observations as to why the apparent public outrage over the scandal is not compelling the government to take more substantial action to resolve it.
“What seems to be missing is a strong and charismatic enough leader,” benign0 said. “Ultimately people still rally around people as much as they do compelling causes. It is becoming evident that traditional organizers like Leftists and ‘civil society’ cliques no longer possess the clout to mobilize the numbers and secure sufficient media mileage. For all the connections with journalists and media personalities we are led to believe these people enjoy, the results don’t seem to match that perception.”
In other words, the protesters are making a demand for something (e.g., “jail all plunderers”) that they have no conviction at all will happen under any circumstances, because they have no clear alternative to get behind.
Administration supporters dominate the Legislature, local government units, and the Judiciary, so what protests are essentially doing is telling those in power simply to “be different than the way you are.”
That would not be irrational if the civic action posed any sort of threat, but so far it does not, because the objective does not seem to go beyond “making our voices heard;” there is no risk of any practical consequences for the targets of the protests.
The military, which to its credit has weeded out many of its political elements in recent years, seems completely disinterested, and thanks to a relatively stable economy the classes with significant resources to force changes in the political atmosphere have no incentive to do so. “I think thanks to the rally overdose of the mid-2000s, Pinoy politicians have learned the best defense against grassroots uprisings that aim mainly to attract attention but fail to demonstrate endurance—and that is to ignore them,” Get Real’s benign0 observed.
And that appears to be what will continue to happen, unless there is some significant change in the overall political and economic status quo. There is no indication now that change is in the offing, at least not before the 2016 national elections; whether that is good news or not depends on your own point of view.