Backing down from confrontation
CANBERRA—President Aquino’s fifth State of the Nation Address last Monday signaled a back-down from the confrontational course on which his administration set out starting in mid-July against the Supreme Court. It embarked on that course after the high court struck down as unconstitutional on July 1 the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program, or the presidential pork barrel.
In his Sona, the President not only did not defend the DAP but also refrained from raising it as an issue worthy of national debate in his annual report to the nation. His speech was notable for its conciliatory tone, in stark contrast to his pugnacious defense of the DAP in two nationally televised speeches two weeks ago, which locked the two constitutionally independent branches of Philippine democracy, the presidency and the judiciary, in conflict. The omission of the DAP issue from the Sona defused the tensions between the two great institutions.
Whatever prompted the President to change his confrontational course, it cannot be said that it was due to his deep-seated devotion to the system of checks and balances. He had, after all, warned in his TV speeches that the Supreme Court’s decision invited intervention from the third branch, Congress, to overrule it. It was not an empty warning because the President’s coalition in the House of Representatives led by his Liberal Party, controls the majority in the chamber.
The presidential tour de force in the Sona appears to have reduced the risk of a constitutional stalemate over the DAP. The President has indicated that he is not taking an activist stance to retaliate against the Supreme Court, to the extent of instigating administration allies in Congress to file bills transferring the administration of the high court’s multimillion-peso Judiciary Development Fund to the Bureau of Treasury. The fund was created 30 years ago under a Marcos-era decree that authorized the judiciary to generate its own funds in order to help augment its budgetary requirements for the benefit of its personnel and to help ensure its independence.
Opposition lawmakers noted the conciliatory tone of the Sona, which made no mention of the plunder and graft cases filed against three of their own—Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla, who are all in detention. The cases had been held out as a trophy of the administration’s “daang matuwid” campaign. The three senators have been charged in connection with the P10-billion scam allegedly masterminded by Janet Lim Napoles, in which their pork barrel allocations were supposedly funneled to a syndicate of fake nongovernment organizations operated by the businesswoman in exchange for hefty kickbacks.
In explaining the President’s change of focus in his Sona from highlighting corruption and emphasizing his administration’s accomplishments in economic growth and poverty reduction—about which the administration has come under growing criticism for giving priority to the criminal prosecution of officials involved in corruption cases—Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said Mr. Aquino “wanted to show he was a statesman.” Although the President has downgraded his bashing of the Supreme Court and of the previous administration, Malacañang admitted that criticisms had taken a toll on the administration’s popularity ratings, which plunged to record low levels in the past few months.
The criticisms have centered on the DAP, which is seen as an abuse in the disbursement of public funds that were claimed to have served as stimulus to economic growth. This argument was earlier shot down by Senator Estrada who, in a privilege speech, charged that millions of pesos in DAP funds intended to ramp up economic growth were used to provide additional allowances to senators who voted to convict Chief Justice Renato Corona during his impeachment trial in the Senate.
In glossing over the mention of the DAP in his Sona, Mr. Aquino removed the fund from public scrutiny, into which Budget Secretary Butch Abad, its ingenious architect, has been drawn as the official accountable for the unconstitutional program. There is public demand for the dismissal of Abad. Mr. Aquino has rejected his resignation and Abad hangs on to his post, saying he still had the confidence of the President.
The removal of the DAP from the hot seat is thus a self-serving act of political survival.
The Sona, through its nonmention of the DAP, has become the crucible on which the administration’s self-righteous declarations of transparent governance are being tested. It was clear that the President is smarting from criticisms, and referring to those who air them as “those who have turned public service into business” and “those who have no other goal but to overthrow government.”
There is very little in the Sona to justify accomplishments in poverty alleviation and job creation beyond the overzealous criminal prosecution of officials accused of corrupt practices. Governance is more about productive activities and creating jobs to bring incomes to the poor. It is less about not being nasty to the critics of government.
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