Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Destruction of Philippine Politics

A week ago, Janet Lim Napoles, the Filipino-Chinese businesswoman at the center of the country’s massive P10 billion Pork Barrel scandal, handed over affidavits to a Blue Ribbon Senate committee implicating an astonishing 20 members of the Senate and 100 members of the House of Representatives.

That is five sixths of the entire Senate and more than a third of the House of Representatives in an episode involving venal lawmakers who funneled government money into their own pockets that was meant to improve the lives of their constituents in a desperately poor country with a per capita gross domestic product of US$4,700 in purchasing power parity. The Philippines ranks 165th in the world out of 267 countries.

The list of lawmakers includes virtually all of the country’s top politicians, including Manny Villar, a presidential candidate in the 2010 general election; two members of the family of former President Joseph Estrada; Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr; Loren Legarda, ranked by the US Embassy as one of the country’s five most prominent women; three members of the family of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’ and many more. [The full list can be found here]

The scandal revolves around the Priority Development Assistance Fund, established under another name in 1990 during the term of President Corazon Aquino, the current president’s mother. Its ostensible purpose was to allow lawmakers to fund small-scale infrastructure or community projects outside the scope of national projects. It has since become universally known as the Pork Barrel. Each senator was to receive P200 million (US$4.47 million at current exchange rates), and each congressman P70 million annually.

Napoles allegedly established a syndicate of non-government organizations through which lawmakers could channel their pork barrel funds. The money could then find its way back into their personal accounts – with a certain amount ending up in Napoles’ own accounts, making her extremely wealthy. Napoles is said to have established as many as 20 such NGOs under her JLN Group.

“To the extent of my knowledge, the following are the Senators, Congressmen and their agents and the officials or staff of implementing agencies of government that had connections with me and received part of the pork barrel,” Napoles said in her affidavit naming them all.

But Napoles was hardly alone. Between 2010 and 2012, another estimated P500 million went to fake NGOs through the state-owned Philippine Forest Corp., the office of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala and the National Agribusiness Corp, and ended up in the bank accounts of lawmakers. They have not been named yet.

The question is what happens next.  The cases are before the country’s Sandiganbayan, a special appellate court made up of 15 jurists to handle corruption cases that was put in place as a kind of head fake by the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1978.  It is an extraordinarily complex case, involving 42 corruption charges and three cases of plunder against at least 30 defendants.  It is uncertain if Napoles’ affidavit will bring the total number to 120.

“According to investigators, Napoles worked with congress members and senators individually and the lawmakers did not know the specifics of the illegal activities of their colleagues,” according to an analysis of the case by Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a country risk firm headquartered in Manila. “This is more than a technicality for prosecutors trying to build a case. It means that rather than addressing pork barrel schemes as a broad conspiracy with many players, they might have to address each individual scheme separately. This is vastly more labor intensive than building a single consolidated large-scale case.”

Unfortunately the Sandiganbayan is far behind in working its way through anti-corruption cases.  As PSA pointed out, the court took from 1998 to 2014 to convict two regional government officials of funneling millions of pesos to companies of their choosing. Unfortunately, after 16 years one of the two was mentally incapacitated and other had died.

The anti-corruption court started 2015 with more than 3,000 unresolved cases before it. The Sandiganbayan resolved only 277 cases in 2014, meaning that “At their current rate, it would take more than a decade to resolve the present caseload; much less the additional cases filed each year,” PSA said.

The ineffectiveness of the government and court system at prosecuting major corruption figures, as PSA points out, “has a corrosive impact on the country’s reform efforts. Though the situation is improving, the slow pace of justice means that the seedy details of lawmakers robbing the poor to line their pockets will be the narrative in the country, rather than that of an improving investment climate.”

In addition to the tedious pace of the march to justice, the issue of impunity in the Philippines makes the situation worse.  The family of Ferdinand Marcos, the strongman deposed and driven from the country and politics in 1987, remains firmly fixed in the Congress. Joseph Estrada, driven from the presidential office in 2001 on charges of massive corruption,  served his time in comfortable house arrest at his own estate until he was pardoned by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is now under house arrest on corruption charges while Estrada has been elected mayor of the city of Manila. Vice President Jejomar Binay has been under attack in the newspapers for months for massive corruption that made him extremely wealthy during his service as mayor of Makati City. According to the country’s polling organizations, the scandal has hardly dented his popularity. 

“One of the prominent cases for the Philippines being a banana republic [or camote (sweet potato) republic if you’re feeling cheeky] is our inability to put to rest the ghosts of our political past,” wrote a blogger who goes under the name “I write as I write.” “It speaks to the inherent weakness of our political and judicial structures – weaknesses that were caused by martial law, and exacerbated by almost every government since. Only in truly third world countries can murderers, the corrupt and the dregs of humanity rise to some of the highest offices in the land. And not only be accepted; but honored and praised as saviors and heroes. Even in the face of incontrovertible proof and evidence.”

Most of the 120 senators and congressmen now named in the Pork Barrel scandal will be up for office in 2016. It is unknown how many will go to the voters in lieu of going to jail but the prognosis is pretty clear. Asia Sentinel


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