The limits of people power
The Second Million People March (MPM) to protest the abuse of the pork barrel, this time held in Makati City on Oct. 4, turned out to be a pathetic parody of the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship.
Billed by its organizers as bigger and “angrier” than the first MPM on Aug. 26, the protest failed to live up to expectations. A lamentable group of less than 3,000 joined the demonstration at the intersection of Ayala and Makati Avenues, a shadow of the estimated 100,000 at the Luneta. The turnout raised doubts on whether public outrage against the corruption involving the massive abuse in the disbursement of public funds can be sustained or is now waning, thus allowing the government to wash its hands of the responsibility of safeguarding taxpayer money.
In pointing out the diminishing turnout, this column is not deriding the importance of Edsa-type people power movements to force reforms in the much-reviled pork barrel system. But there are increasing signs, after the two rallies, that the government is stonewalling on preserving the system in different guises, and consolidating powers to monopolize disbursements of state patronage instead of abolishing it, as demanded by the street protests. We are entering dangerous terrain leading to a dictatorship of the purse—a coup on the legislature’s constitutional power of the purse.
In holding the Oct. 4 rally in Makati, the organizers had hoped to attract the participation of white-collar workers in the establishments in the central business district. But they received, to their grief, a cool response from the country’s financial center, indicating that the movement against the pork barrel needed wider institutional support from big business. Random media interviews with Makati business groups showed that although many businessmen share the public’s outrage, business groups were slow to respond because mass protests “had no impact on business over the short term.” However, a business executive added: “But if it drags on, there could potentially be a long-term impact on the economy and the market because this could constrain funding for [public-private partnership] projects and others.” The BPO Industry Employees Network expressed support for the protest movement, but “if the taxes we pay to the government are only pocketed by big politicians, we might as well keep our money.”
Organizers of the rally castigated President Aquino for not heeding the people’s voice calling attention to corruption in his administration. But they stopped short of calling for his resignation or ouster. They made clear that the MPM was not for Mr. Aquino’s ouster but “for a change in the system and to make corrupt public officials accountable, whether they are from the opposition or allies of the administration.”
The anti-system target of the MPM plays into the hands of Mr. Aquino. It allows him to manipulate public outrage by deflecting it to senators and congressmen who have been charged with plunder by the Department of Justice at the Office of the Ombudsman in connection with the diversion of their pork barrel allocations to the Janet Lim-Napoles syndicate of NGOs in exchange for kickbacks.
Some rally organizers said they didn’t like that Malacañang had been limiting the scope of the pork barrel system to the Priority Development Assistance Fund enjoyed by members of Congress, allowing him to demonize them before public opinion.
Former National Treasurer Leonor Briones, in an effort to clarify what really constitutes pork barrel, tweeted: “It’s like we’re being deliberately confused by complicated terms in the budget when it should be something all of us should understand.” According to the rally leaders, what Briones meant was that, per the administration’s definition, pork barrel covers “lump-sum appropriations” and allows the exercise of “discretion”—a description that also points to the much bigger lump sum available to the disposal of the president. Having a clear understanding of the pork barrel system will keep the Palace and the legislators from escaping the public demand to scrap the entire system and not just the PDAF, it was further explained. So far, the President and his allies have been defining the pork barrel as it suits them, the rally leaders said. “They’re just spinning their own web.”
In approving the 2014 budget on second reading, the Aquino-controlled House of Representatives deleted the item on the PDAF, distributing a total of P25.4 billion among six government agencies. But the House members were asked to “recommend” up to five projects to which allocations for public works (P9.954 billion) would be spent.
But the House members awarded the President a bonus for their capitulation. They did not touch the President’s own pork barrel, the P450-billion Special Purpose Fund. This is so because the President will eventually decide where the money would go.
In this one-sided deal, the winner takes all—at gunpoint. All these protests have gone to naught. It will take more forceful actions to halt this aggrandizement of presidential powers, including the power of the purse.
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