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Aquino's good governance policy faces serious test
Gil C. Cabacungan and Leila B. Salaverria
Philippine Daily Inquirer
As he delivers his fourth State of the Nation Address (Sona) on Monday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s “straight path" policy against corruption is under close scrutiny in the wake of allegations that transportation officials tried to extort US$30 million from a Czech train supplier and that bogus NGOs funneled 10 billion pesos ($230 million) in pork barrel into ghost projects.
Akbayan Representative Walden Bello said appointees of Aquino had been accused by a European ambassador of the extortion attempt for the capacity expansion and modernisation of MRT 3, the commuter train system along Edsa that is suffering from passenger congestion due to a limited supply of coaches.
“The DOTC (Department of Transportation and Communications) controversy is the most serious since the people accused by the Czech ambassador are appointees of the administration and not insignificant ones. We don’t want to end up with a pure president surrounded by dirt and slime,” Bello, an ally of the president, said in a text message.
Josef Rychtar, Czech ambassador to the Philippines, has accused DOTC officials, led by MRT General Manager Al Vitangcol, of demanding $30 million from Inekon. The Czech company was reportedly blacklisted after rejecting the bribe demand.
The ambassador said the extortion attempt was made when Manuel Roxas II, now interior secretary, was the DOTC head. His handpicked officials in the department have been retained by his replacement, Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya. Both Roxas and Abaya are high-ranking officials of the ruling Liberal Party.
Abaya announced on Friday that his office was investigating the matter and that Inekon had not been blacklisted.
Before news of the $30-million extortion attempt broke out, a bigger scandal came to light.
The Inquirer reported Janet Lim-Napoles’ alleged 10-billion peso pork barrel racket over the past 10 years involving five senators, 23 members of the House of Representatives and more than a dozen fake NGOs, and ghost projects.
Clamor for abolition
ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio said that for the first time in the past three years, the clamor for the abolition of the pork barrel had reached a crescendo that even the president could not ignore.
“(T)he 10-billion peso pork barrel scam is the ultimate test case for daang matuwid as an anticorruption campaign. Will [the president ensure a thorough investigation that spares no one, or will this be an exercise in scapegoating, damage control and selective demolition of political opponents?” Tinio said in a text message to the Inquirer.
The party-list lawmaker said the abolition of the pork barrel, formally known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), would be the lasting legacy of daang matuwid. “Otherwise, it will just be another anticorruption showcase that ultimately leaves institutionalised corruption and patronage intact,” Tinio said.
Each senator is allotted 200 million pesos and a member of the House 70 million pesos in PDAF yearly for their pet projects.
Tinio said Aquino’s initial reaction to calls for the abolition of PDAF had “exposed the limits” of his anticorruption campaign which he kicked off to a rousing applause when he took office in July 2010.
“Evidently, he’s unwilling to go as far as dismantling the system of patronage politics at the root of corruption in government. No wonder, since the Aquino administration has shown that it is no less adept at manipulating government resources, including PDAF and the CCT (conditional cash transfer), for expanding the Liberal Party base,” Tinio said.
Bello said a conviction of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who has languished in detention but has succeeded in parrying legal efforts to jail her, was not enough.
“I think the administration is determined to convict GMA, but the judicial system is what is holding things up. But the pork barrel scam shows you have to really push deeper into the system to root out corruption and not be satisfied with just getting people at the top like GMA,” the Akbayan lawmaker said.
The president’s other allies downplayed the slew of news involving corruption in the past few weeks.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said the daang matuwid mantra he helped craft for the presidential campaign in 2010 had not lost its appeal.
“There is a lot of noise out there but the trust and approval ratings of [the president] and his administration remain in the very high category. Watch out for the latest SWS (Social Weather Stations) ratings. Our people are discerning enough to sift through all this confusing jumble of allegations,” Abad said.
He said the "straight path" policy was fundamental to all the social, economic and political reforms that the administration was pursuing.
Abad noted that the corruption charges against DOTC officials were “allegations that still need to be investigated.”
Sen. Francis Escudero said the president “has remained true and steadfast with his campaign. Simply put, our battle versus graft and corruption is not a simple one and cannot be totally erased overnight. It’s a work in progress and the president is the best chance we have in gaining headway and achieving this elusive dream.”
Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara said the president’s anticorruption campaign had already taken root in health, social services and education, “as shown by the greater funds available and devoted to the people and which they can see and feel.”
Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III said the president was sticking to his vision. “I still think the person or the president still walks the path.”
The president’s speech is ready, but the lawmakers who will be hearing his message in the flesh have their own great expectations on what he will tackle when he faces the country Monday.
Allies and critics alike want to hear him to continue to discuss corruption, which has always been a theme in many of his speeches.
In the Sona, the president lists his accomplishments, lays down his plans for the next year, and points to the direction he wants the administration to take.
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