• What next?

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    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    Monday’s “Million-Person March” against the now-infamous “pork barrel” may not have actually been attended by a million people—estimates ranged from 70,000 to as many as 650,000, with around 200,000 seeming to be the consensus among people who were there—but it was still fairly impressive, given that it was the first large-scale public protest against the government of President B.S. Aquino 3rd.

    The main event in Manila’s Luneta Park was also joined by similar demonstrations of public ire in at least 23 cities throughout the country, as well as among groups of Filipinos in different parts of the world.

    People who attended or followed the protest on TV or the social media differed in their assessments of its impact. The fact that it was a remarkably peaceful and well-mannered rally—several Get Real Philippines associates who attended described it as being like a picnic or a festival (and in one writer’s view, “boring”) that was long on sentiment and short on direction; pleasant enough, but not the clear stern warning to the government that some were hoping it would be. From a distance, Monday’s events had little apparent impact on the public consciousness; although it was reasonably well-covered by radio and TV news, people in areas where rallies were not being held had little knowledge or interest in the events.

    The apathy of the majority—which in some troubling ways is an actual rejection of the “scrap pork barrel” call rather than simple lack of concern—along with the very real risk, given Filipino’s discouraging history of quickly losing interest in big issues (a personality quirk so ingrained in the culture they even have a term for it: Ningas-cogon), that the protest momentum will soon evaporate is what might allow President Aquino to avoid international scrutiny over an issue which, were he the President of most any other country, would most likely see him ejected from office. The success, such as it was, of the “scrap pork” rally on Monday may have been to provoke a very worried reaction from the President; in an attempt to forestall the protests, he announced a hastily contrived “replacement” for the compromised “pork barrel” system—officially known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund, or PDAF—late Friday, a move that was met with derision from most quarters.

    What President Aquino is apparently hoping to achieve is to counteract the surprise a large-scale protest against him must be to foreign media and other observers, who until now have been fed a steady stream of information portraying him as a popular, corruption-busting leader. The sanitized official story being peddled by the Aquino administration and helped tremendously by the fact that the country’s largest media outfits are, if not actually controlled by the government, heavily influenced by Aquino backers is that the issue of the “pork barrel” involves collusion to commit fraud between certain members of the legislature and one Janet Lim-Napoles, who is currently the subject of a half-hearted manhunt and arrest warrant, during the last couple years (specifically 2007-2009) of the term of former President Gloria Arroyo. By presenting a repackaged PDAF under a different name (a plan that was so obviously hurried that at least one local pundit observed that producing the explanatory infographic for it must have actually taken longer) and promising to punish the offenders, the image-conscious President Aquino can maintain the anti-corruption front, and it will probably help to boost his claim to integrity that second-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) numbers, scheduled to be released later today, are expected to be positive.

    Thus the story the rest of the world will get is that President Aquino, heir to the sainted name, is leading the redress of a specific corruption issue and implementing steps to prevent its recurrence in response to a public outcry for him to take action on the matter, and that the proof of his continued effectiveness and public support is the strong economic performance of the country as reflected in the latest, and once again admirable, GDP figures.

    The story the rest of world will probably not hear is that Mr. Aquino’s presidency is now in serious jeopardy because much of the public outrage—which to be accurate does not involve a majority of the population by any means, but does involve that part of it which actually has the ability to apply pressure on the government—is directed squarely at him, and a system of economic waste and plunder that has expanded enormously under his watch.

    The PDAF, which applies only to the legislature but which is controlled by the administration, has nearly tripled under President Aquino (from P10.9 billion in 2010, Arroyo’s last year in office, to P27 billion in the 2014 General Appropriations Act) but is still only a fraction of the vast amount of “unprogrammed” and “discretionary” funds—for which public accounting is murky at best—to which government revenues are diverted. Various funds controlled directly by the President are estimated to be between P450 billion and a staggering P1 trillion (in other words, something between 20 percent and 44 percent of the entire national budget), and other figures for different offices, such as P200 million in similar “discretionary” funds for the Office of the Vice President, and between P1.9 and P4 billion in extraneous funding for the Department of the Interior and Local Government led by key Aquino ally Manuel “Mar” Roxas, have also provoked public anger.

    While trying to divert public attention to the narrow issue of the PDAF, President Aquino and his advisers have pointedly ignored the fact that the protests are against all forms of unaccountable funds, the largest proportion of which are personally his responsibility; worse, President Aquino has specifically rejected calls to eliminate or reduce his own discretionary budget, claiming he is above reproach in spending decisions despite his Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad’s having gone on record publicly to state that using discretionary funds as a political carrot or stick is a matter of formal administration policy (for reference, and a link to the original Inquirer article containing Abad’s remarks, see http://getrealphilippines.com/blog/2013/08/pork-barrel-redux-dbm-secretary-abad-confirms-douchebaggery-as-official-administration-policy/). Furthermore, the Aquino administration has apparently blocked the release of a Commission on Audit (COA) report on the use of the PDAF for the years 2010-2012, allowing only the report covering President Aquino’s despised predecessor’s term (when the questionable funds were only one-third to one-half the amount disbursed under President Aquino) to be disclosed.

    None of which will make much difference if the “scrap pork” protest loses steam, but whether it does or not, the Philippines appears to be headed for uninspiring times. If the “scrap pork” movement turns out to be another typically Pinoy, short-lived outrage fad, then at best the country can expect to continue to lose upwards of 70 percent of its annual budget to inefficient, politically motivated short-term spending and outright theft, a dangerous state of affairs considering the implications of a likely period of financial market downturn (the benchmark Philippine Stock Exchange index lost more than 4 percent on the day after the protests, virtually wiping out its gains for the year) coupled with intensified regional competition in 2015. If the protests do manage to keep the issues at the forefront of the public’s and government’s attention, however, the likely result is a legislative session that will be completely hijacked by the topic for the rest of the year, pushing aside a number of key economic and social measures that need to be addressed.

    All things considered, the latter scenario, as damaging as it could be for the country, is probably the better choice for its potential long-term benefits. The choice, however, is uniquely left to the Filipino people: With legislators having already joined the President in declaring that the inefficient and abuse-prone budgeting system will continue through at least 2014 with no modification whatsoever, no change will be possible without public compulsion. Whether the Philippine public likes it or not, by taking President Aquino to task for allowing abuses to continue, they have now accepted the mantle of responsibility for what comes next.

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