Anti-Corruption Leads 2012 Agenda in the Philippines
January 4, 2012
One of the virtues of a regular exercise at peering into a new year is that you can check your own predictions from the past year. My predictions that I made here for the Philippines in 2011 were correct in three of four instances:
- Peace talks did begin (those with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front had more progress than those with the National Democratic Front).
- The budget system continued to work as the 2012 budget was signed into law in mid-December 2011 (with the government adopting a national payroll system for government employees).
- And, of course, boxer Manny Pacquiao defeated Shane Mosely.
My political prediction, though, that there would be continued concern with factionalism in the administration of President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III, did not pan out. While there continues to be talk of disruptive internecine feuding among certain groups, there has been relatively little evidence of that beyond the walls of the palace in the past 12 months.
Some of what transpired in 2011 happens so regularly that it does not merit the term “prediction.” As one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, when the Philippines is struck by a tragedy of the scope of the recent typhoon Sendong (international name Washi), one is not surprised but can instead try to draw lessons for future preparedness.
What did transpire over the course of 2011 was a series of heated political events and wins by the current administration that cumulatively were so striking that some alarmists spoke of a “soft coup” on the part of President Noynoy. First came the resignation in the face of an impeachment trial of Merciditas Gutierrez, head of the powerful anti-corruption Ombudsman’s office. This allowed President Aquino to appoint a new Ombudsman that he trusts to pursue his anti-corruption agenda.
Next came the resignation of a senator over allegations of cheating in the 2007 elections. Then, linked to that alleged cheating, was the well-publicized arrest of former president (now congresswoman) Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for electoral fraud in those elections. Linked to that, since the Philippine Supreme Court had issued (just prior to the arrests) rulings that favored Ms. Arroyo’s right to travel – rulings that the Aquino administration ignored to keep her in the country – was the impeachment by the House of Representatives of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Renato Corona. The Philippine Senate will begin the impeachment trial of the chief justice on January 16. A further step in this drama occured when former Commission on Elections (COMELEC) chair Benjamin Abalos was also arrested in connection with alleged fraud in the 2007 elections.
So, in a dramatic finish to the year, Ms. Arroyo and the COMELEC chair she had appointed were both indicted for electoral fraud (Ms. Arroyo is under hospital arrest and former COMELEC chair Abalos is currently detained in a Taguig City jail); the chief justice of the Supreme Court faces an impeachment trial (and previously the ombudsman resigned rather than undergo an impeachment trial); and for the first time in history, a senator resigned over allegations of cheating in the election he supposedly had won. Far from being split by internal conflicts, the current administration looks like a juggernaut as it pursues the president’s campaign slogan, “if there’s no corruption there will be no poverty.”
Such tactics are approved by the Philippine citizenry, and are endorsed by anti-corruption theorists and activists, such as Robert Klitgaard who said “an important step in fighting systematic corruption is to ‘fry big fish,’ that is, to prosecute and punish high-level perpetrators.” But Michael Johnston in his monograph, “Political and Social Foundations for Reform: Anti-Corruption Strategies for the Philippines,” concludes: “If a new administration can fry some big fish, more power to it, but beyond the clear value of punishing specific wrongdoers such an approach should be seen as a way to open the door for more basic reforms, not as a solution to the corruption problem in its own right.”
The Aquino administration has taken steps toward basic reforms, as I noted when predicting that the government’s fiscal system would continue to improve. The Philippines has joined the international Open Government Partnership, started 2012 with the president’s approval of a Good Governance and Anti-Corruption Plan, and is pressing ahead with a Freedom of Information bill.
However, pushing for more basic reforms is not an easy task. In 2011, the government’s caution to avoid corruption in projects slowed down spending, which in turn slowed down economic growth. On similar grounds, the government’s highly touted Public-Private Partnership (PPP) continued to drag with only one project actually signed in 2011. Analysts have pointed to declining public satisfaction with government performance in fighting poverty and creating jobs, while the government vows to speed up spending in 2012 to kick-start the economy.
As 2012 begins, people here are the most optimistic they have been in the last 25 years, according to the Social Weather Stations, and, to the exasperation of his more vociferous critics, continue to support PNoy. So now, the stage has been set for a powerful, popular president to move forward on his key agenda item: anti-corruption. 2012 will be the testing ground.
Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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