Change and challenges
The year 2013 was a litmus test for the Aquino administration and the nation. While President Aquino remains steadfast against corruption in government, the public perceives that his daang matuwid is strewn with broken glass because of his administration’s lack of firm action to correct wrongdoing made public. P-Noy’s campaign against corruption led to high expectations, but the events of 2013 led to loud public criticism. The perception of weak governance was amplified by the administration’s attitude and action in the face of natural and manmade outbreaks, and heightened by Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” a natural disaster that turned into a national tragedy.
The early months of 2013 continued as glory days of the administration. Malacañang boasted of a robust economy and an administration with a very good satisfaction rating. Administrative and procedural reforms in governance were introduced, making delivery of government services performance-based; programs were implemented with zero-based budgeting and inefficient programs terminated; funding for key initiatives was increased and open and competitive bidding introduced, resulting in billion-peso savings for the government.
In his third State of the Nation Address, P-Noy said his administration aimed to solidify accomplishments and to get done with the rest of its programs and projects for inclusive growth—reducing poverty, improving social protection, and putting in place systems and processes that promote greater transparency and accountability. With a very good net satisfaction rating of +64 (SWS June 2013 survey), P-Noy was on the way to establishing the administration’s historical and political imprint—until a convergence of events that had the country lurching from one disaster to another altered the political scene. The administration’s political disposition and norms of governance were put on the spot.
Perception vs reality
The administration took perception as everything and reality as secondary. It failed to face that reality on the issues of the pork barrel scam and the Disbursement Acceleration Program. The pork barrel (or the Priority Development Assistance Fund) is a discretionary annual budgetary entitlement to lawmakers. Although the public is aware that graft is endemic in government, the P10-billion PDAF siphoned off to fictitious organizations and nonsensical projects and into the pockets of conniving legislators, agency officials, civilians, and one enterprising scam artist stunned even the most cynical.
The DAP is a stimulus package introduced by the administration and designed to fast-track public spending and push economic growth. But a disbursement exposed by an invidious speech of Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, one of the alleged conspirators in the pork barrel scam, made the DAP controversial. A huge amount was disbursed to senators who had positioned for the conviction of then Chief Justice Renato Corona at his impeachment trial.
The P10-billion pork barrel scam is grand theft of people’s taxes, and the public is outraged. The disbursement to choice legislators under the DAP is an abuse of discretion, and the public is highly critical.
The administration was on a high road when the National Bureau of Investigation stumbled into Benhur Luy, who subsequently blew the whistle on those involved in the pork barrel scam. But it failed to comprehend public outrage by going against the tide that called for the abolition of the PDAF. Thus, public ire was easily swayed to viewing both the pork barrel and the DAP as patronage doles. What compounded the President’s dilemma was that he was like a conductor faced by an orchestra of soloists. While he was rationalizing the PDAF and justifying the DAP, most of his officials were mum, and a few others produced a different tune. Thus, the more he opened his mouth, the more he made himself into a bigger target than he already was.
By September, P-Noy’s net satisfaction rating had dropped to +49 from +64 in June. The key factor in the sudden decline was the disposition against the abolition of the PDAF and the misuse of the DAP.
When times get rough, the administration is presumptuous in thinking that it knows all. In September, it was caught flat-footed by an attempt of a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front to lay siege to Zamboanga City—a consequence of failure of intelligence-gathering. The crisis tied up the government for three weeks, with a devastating cost in lives and properties. Amid the Zamboanga crisis, Typhoon “Odette” battered Northern and Central Luzon, displacing almost 70,000 people. In October, Typhoon “Santi” hit Luzon anew, exacerbating the damage to the rice-growing provinces. Two days after Santi, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake ravaged Cebu and Bohol.
The appearance at a Senate inquiry of whistle-blower Luy and alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Napoles on Nov. 7 was an opportunity for the administration to recoup the initiative. But the next day, Yolanda brought the administration, stubbornly claiming that it was on top of the situation, to its knees. It underestimated the strength of the storm surges even as it warned the people to prepare, and failed to cover all contingencies.
Eastern and western Visayas were extensively hit. More than 6,000 died and 582,203 families were left homeless. The coastal areas of Leyte and Samar turned into wastelands and graveyards of the people’s hopes. The devastation, the desperate plight of the survivors, and the mayhem surrounding them sent shivers of pain into the public soul. No one paid attention to the reassuring speeches of administration officials. Everyone wanted the government to act quickly.
The 100,000-strong gathering of pork barrel protesters at Rizal Park on Aug. 26 was people power that had taken a life of its own through social networking. It was clearly emotional public outrage, and the mobilization was beyond the capacity and imagination of conventional activism. It was a citizens’ act for institutional reform.
Movements for freedom of information gained wider constituency and citizens’ participation in budget formulation and fiscal management blossomed. These are clearly citizens’ demands for the right to participate in transparent and accountable governance. While the middle class is visibly at the forefront of the call for reforms, silently, on their own, informal-settler communities are working on their people’s proposals for affordable housing within the city. They remain patient in dealing with different agencies, each with its own competing views, rules and agendas.
Despite calamity after calamity, the nation remains steadfast in its generosity to the afflicted. Despite the administration’s missteps and mistakes, the people remain ready to work with it. This is not about perception; it is a reality that the administration must face, or it will ultimately lose face.
Patrick Patino is with the Institute for Popular Democracy.
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