Limits to authority | Inquirer Opinion
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Limits to authority

The Napoles/Malampaya corruption cases that erupted last  year exposed criminal abuse of power by elected officials. By comparison, the forcible exit from a restricted Dasmariñas Village gate by the convoy of Makati Mayor Junjun Binay and Sen. Nancy Binay was small potatoes. But it offers an apt, year-end summary of issues at the root of corruption challenges confronting the country.

A security video documented the details. The convoy tries to leave the village from a gate barred after 10 p.m., instead of an open exit a block away. The Binays make themselves known.  Exit remains barred. Makati policemen arrive and enable the convoy to exit. Simple facts raise fundamental questions of governance that other democratizing countries are also facing.

What powers, rights and privileges do incumbent officials enjoy? What are their corresponding duties, obligations and responsibilities? Rephrasing the second question, what rights of private individuals and groups must government officials respect?

Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian defended the right of Mayor Binay to enter and leave any area within his jurisdiction. By blocking his departure from one village exit, the security guards “totally disregarded the authority vested on Mayor Binay.”

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Vice President Jojo Binay’s response was more tempered—“a little courtesy, please, to the mayor”—unfairly headlined by the Inquirer as “My son deserves courtesy.” By invoking the image of family, in referring to Mayor Binay as “the father and leader of the city,” Mayor Gatchalian also mixed official position with personal relationships, inadvertently focusing on another of the year’s burning issues: political dynasties.

The Binay siblings unfortunately missed the chance to reinforce P-Noy’s vision of the people—not the children or wards of elected officials—as the “boss,” by behavior publicly perceived as “abuse of authority.”

While the mayor’s jurisdiction covers all of Makati, he was apparently not on official duty that night. Without evidence of a crime in progress, summoning the police to raise the barrier blocking the convoy requires explanation. So does the detention and questioning of the security guards “invited” to the police station.

Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano felt that the incident merited an investigation, but appeared to condition this on Vice President Binay directing his son to go on leave “to give way” to the inquiry. His advice again underlined familial politics. Does a member of the Senate, empowered and ever eager to conduct investigations on issues of public interest, have to wait upon someone’s exercise of parental responsibility?

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Clarifying the limits of official power surely deserves official scrutiny. Arranged beforehand, exempting the Binay convoy from village rules would have been a courtesy that would have created no concerns. But a privilege is freely given out of goodwill, not extracted through police powers from guards without the discretion to extend it.

How do we weigh this “courtesy” against the community’s prerogative to determine its own security measures (made necessary by the government’s inadequate law enforcement capabilities), the village guards’ duty to enforce them, and their right to be protected from arbitrary arrest?

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Failure to balance these rights and responsibilities is crucial to curbing political corruption, understood as the use of official influence and power by government officials for personal benefit. These benefits are not necessarily monetary, but always project the official’s power, the better to enhance it. This year, the public has awakened to the powers received or appropriated by officials to advance private interests.

Elected officials are especially powerful because they prescribe regulations that govern the system. As rule-makers, politicians can use their offices to tap public funds and manipulate electoral and other laws for reelection campaigns. And to help their relatives secure political offices—which then further strengthens the family in future election bids of members or dynasty allies.

This vicious cycle of “democratic” elections has entrenched political oligarchies adept at populist politics. Democracy “fundamentalists” cannot dissolve the dilemma countries like Thailand face by simply invoking the sanctity of election results, when incumbent rule-makers can tilt the process in their favor.

This challenge is particularly severe in countries still struggling to strengthen democratic institutions and practices. However suspect the process, election winners invoke the precept that “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” Beneath this cover, predatory politicians can systematically subvert any reform program.

Ironically, the administration’s anticorruption campaign faces threats from two directions. Opponents accuse it of softness in investigating cases against its political allies. But it also appears reluctant to exercise its prerogatives over political rivals, or to apply the law against them, because it may be perceived as abusing its authority for partisan purposes.

Transparency and consistency in its actions can provide the protective shield for the ruling government. Violations of the law committed by any group should meet the same response. The P-Noy administration’s willingness to sanction renders unexceptional the necessary punishment of adversaries.

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Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

TAGS: business, Janet Napoles, Junjun Binay, news, pork barrel

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