Bottom-up change

September 2, 2013
Introspective by Calixto Chikiamco
(Business World) September 2, 2013

POLITICAL REFORM and economic reform are interlinked. I’ve been saying this for a long time.

The pork barrel scandal is a perfect example of this. Who will now follow BIR Commissioner Kim Henares’ exhortation to pay taxes or to be shocked by her name-and-shame campaign against doctors, lawyers, and restaurant owners if the politicians are perceived to be stealing wholesale the people’s money? Why pay taxes if it might fund the lavish lifestyle of people like Jeane Napoles?

Unfortunately, political reforms have always been absent from President Aquino’s agenda. His Daang Matuwid is about tone and style, and not about reforming the system. It’s about making changes at the margin, primarily by changing people and prosecuting officials of the previous administration who didn’t switch sides.

Moreover, Daang Matuwid may not be sustainable, because it rests solely on his personal example. It has yet to be tested by being applied on his own allies who have committed wrongdoing. It does nothing about addressing the root causes of corruption.

President Aquino’s initial dismissive attitude toward criticisms of the pork barrel, his reluctance to abolish the PDAF, and his hard stance about retaining his own presidential powers over discretionary funds, whether they be from the Malampaya fund or Presidential Social Fund, show that he doesn’t see anything fundamentally wrong with the system. For him, it just needs a little auditing here and there.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. President Aquino is a product of that system, having been a congressman for three terms and then a senator. While he himself may not have stolen from his own pork barrel, he saw nothing wrong with the system. He’s a political reactionary in a sense, and not really a reformer.

This may help explain the barrenness of political reforms in his agenda. There’s nothing about dismantling private armies. Nothing about democratizing access to political office and reducing the number of political dynasties (many of which are allied with him.) Nothing about increasing political accountability through the promotion of programmatic political parties, nor about campaign finance reform. Nothing about electoral reform or improving the flawed Smartmatic election system. Nothing even about pushing the Freedom of Information bill, which he supported when he was running for president, but which he has dropped from his legislative agenda.

There’s also nothing about dismantling the traditional sources of corruption and political patronage like the government monopolies PAGCOR and the National Food Authority.

The massive protest against the pork barrel and the damage it’s inflicting on his Teflon-image must therefore be a jolt to President Aquino. Political reform is being pushed from below. Instead of leading the reform, he’s trying to catch up and do damage control.

While it’s good that the mass of netizens are pushing for political reform, the abolition of the PDAF, or so-called congressional pork barrel, may not be the solution. As former Budget Secretary Ben Diokno points out, there’s a great incentive for politicians to steal because of the sheer cost of running for office and the fact that there’s lack of political parties which can help raise money for campaigns. Since the incentive is there, the PDAF will be resurrected in some form, as it has been in the past. Worse, if the legislators can’t raise money by stealing, they can sell legislation to the highest bidder.

Abolishing the PDAF but allowing the President to keep his own huge pork barrel may just further weaken the legislative vis a vis the executive. The outsize power of the chief executive versus the legislative is one reason why former President Arroyo got away with so many abuses during her term. The separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution may be undermined further.

The real game changer, as Ben Diokno points out, is the passage of the Budget Impoundment bill, which would require the executive to implement the budget in accordance with the General Appropriations Act. Otherwise, because of the executive’s power to realign the funds, Congress has no real power over the purse. But pushing for the bill would require President Aquino to make a sacrifice and not think like a tradpol.

This pork barrel controversy represents a real crisis for President Aquino. His Daang Matuwid may be proven to be hollow if those powerful politicians who stole from the pork barrel, including his own allies, are allowed to go scot-free. His own political popularity is likely to plunge. His endorsement power may be greatly diminished, adding to his status as a lameduck.

The usual response to these types of crisis is spin control, circuses (aka show biz entertainment), or creating another crisis to put the current one in the back pages. However, in the age of social media, these traditional responses may no longer work. Netizens can be vigilant and easily spread the word around. In Brazil and in Turkey, as in here, crowds were easily mobilized even without a clear leader.

What President Aquino has to do is to get ahead of the curve — to initiate political reforms rather than to be dragged into it. He has to go beyond No Wang-Wang to attack the root causes of corruption and the culture of impunity.

In a previous column, “The case for pessimism,” I argued that 7% growth is not sustainable without political reforms. In another column, “Paths to change,” I stated that one way change could happen is if it’s forced from below. The mass outrage against the pork barrel plunder gives me hope that political reform may be on the horizon and change my mood from pessimism to guarded optimism.