For those old enough to remember, recent retorts by President Benigno Aquino 3rd, bristling at the Pork Barrel King tag and daring opponents to impeach him, are starting to sound like Ferdinand Marcos’s tough talk in his waning years.
In their own ways, both leaders exuded unshakable clout and confidence, dismissing critics and charges, insisting they are righteous and lawful, and always claiming to act with the nation’s interest and mandate in mind.
By contrast, another president who faced mounting attacks, Gloria Arroyo, rarely exchanged barbed words with critics and never taunted them to unseat her. Instead, she maintained focus on governance and the economy, leaving spokespersons to address controversies.
Both approaches make sense depending on circumstances. For a widely trusted leader, directly rebutting charges works since most people believe him. But when a president with diminished credibility answers accusations, he sounds defensive and loses even more support, as Marcos did.
Then it may be better to focus on governance, as seen in a little-publicized Social Weather Stations survey in early 2006 amid the Hello Garci brouhaha.
Polled on the statement, “The 2004 elections are past, and the President should focus on the real problems of the nation,” well over half the SWS respondents agreed, and only about a quarter disagreed. There were similar results for another statement saying the opposition should desist from too much politics and help boost the economy.
When the credibility meter swings from positive to negative is never easy to tell. Leaders and their supporters tend to exaggerate the positive and minimize the negative. And if media and surveys are unduly favorable, they further mask declining credibility. Exactly what happened to Marcos.
On the other hand, press and pollsters were strongly anti-Arroyo. Top newspapers and networks constantly highlighted bad news, and SWS and Pulse Asia rushed to survey issues against the adminstration — the exact opposite of their behavior today. One result: Arroyo opponents like failed putschist Antonio Trillanes 4th wrongly believed that Filipinos would rise up and join uprisings.
On the present dispensation, is Aquino’s credibility diminishing significantly? Hard to tell. Leading media still favor it, alhough even the most pro-Aquino broadsheet gave front-page, above-the-fold coverage to his irritation over Pork Barrel King. Opinion polls in June registered unprecedented satisfaction ratings of almost 80 percent.
But criticism has undoubtedly grown, now from bigger names and major sectors. They include Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who once avoided attacking the President. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines demands pork barrel scrapping against Aquino’s wish to merely reform it. Anti-graft agitation has risen on the street and online, with the largest rallies ever under Aquino.
Meanwhile, his usual retorts may be losing appeal. Segments of the public and the press are getting tired of his constant blaming of Arroyo, with media attacks and corruption charges against her following on cue. In last week’s charges over the P900-million Malampaya fund release for Ondoy and Pepeng disaster rehabilitation, Arroyo was added after the initial list of accused excluded her.
Aquino’s defense of fund releases—“Is there bribery after the fact?”—won’t convince many. Everyone knows payoffs can be given after the corrupted act, although they are promised beforehand, as Senator Estrada revealed in his expose on porcine incentives in the Corona impeachment.
(Of course, payoffs can also be before the fact. Lawmakers got pork “commissions” up front. And there was the $30 million advance demanded from Czech rail company Inekon in the Metro Rail Transit bidding. Perhaps those scandals made Aquino mistakenly think that bribery only happens before the fact.)
Along with pork inducements, the legally dubious Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) further tarnishes Aquino’s studiously cultivated image of incorruptibility. Many, if not most Filipinos, now think DAP is just the Palace version of the Priority Development Assistance Fund.
The unconstitutionality of using agency savings for legislators’ projects is easy to explain. Ordinary Filipinos can quickly grasp that if the law allows only the agency to spend its allocations, then it is illegal to use funds of, say, the Department of Health on non-DOH undertakings designated by lawmakers.
Even harder to counter is the chorus of legal minds denouncing DAP as illegal. Not just Senators Santiago and Joker Arroyo, an Aquino family friend, but constitutionalist and Ateneo Law School dean emeritus Fr. Joaquin Bernas and Fr. Rhannie Aquino, the San Beda Graduate School of Law head.
Meanwhile, top administration lawyers are silent, from loyalist Senate President Franklin Drilon, Justice Secretary under then President Corazon Aquino, to Senator Chiz Escudero and former senator Francis Pangilinan.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima is mum, too. Her counsel is usually sought on the legality of actions by the Executive branch. Evidently, she wasn’t asked about DAP, unless some written opinion by her, the Solicitor General, or the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel will surface to make it appear that Aquino promulgated DAP on wrong advice.
There’s more. The Commission on Audit is auditing DAP, and it cannot but question the legality of utilizing funds for expenditures never appropriated by Congress, since legislators were asked to suggest projects outside the appropriations process.
If Budget Secretary Florencio Abad again withholds papers on dubious undertakings of allies, as in the 2007-09 PDAF, any illegality even with opposition-designated DAP spending will still tar him and the Chief Executive by whose instructions and sole authority he allocated the funds.
Should COA Chairperson Grace Pulido-Tan try to bail out Aquino by parroting the Palace line that DAP is lawful, she may find herself not only haled before the Supreme Court, but facing impeachment in Congress and charges in the Ombudsman.
By daring opponents to impeach, Aquino expects his adminstration’s overwhelming majority in the legislature to block his ouster, as Arroyo’s bloc did during her time. This despite his clear and culpable violation of the Constitution, not just in DAP but in the far worse offense of meddling in Congress through budget releases. And he means to keep his clout among lawmakers although he can no longer brazenly offer them funds.
Back in 2000, then President Joseph Estrada also relied on his coalition of lawmakers to hold. It didn’t.