Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos gathered in Manila last Monday, August 26 to denounce the rampant corruption in the government. Thousands more voiced their outrage in public parks across the country and in many parts of the world. Interestingly, the Internet played a major role in coordinating the protests and it was netizens, and not the political opposition, who called for a public protest against corruption.
Protesters were demanding the scrapping of the pork barrel in the budgeting process after a whistleblower revealed that many politicians have been diverting their allotted funds to fake organizations, family-owned foundations, and ghost projects. Under the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), members of the House of Representatives are allotted 70 million pesos every year while Senators are given 200 million pesos. Public outrage soared in recent weeks, forcing President Benigno Aquino III to declare last week that he intends to abolish the PDAF, more popularly known as the pork barrel.
But in the same speech, Aquino hinted that the pork barrel might be revived when he said that his administration “will create a new mechanism to address the needs of your constituents and sectors, in a manner that is transparent, methodical, and rational, and not susceptible to abuse or corruption.”
Critics accused Aquino of misleading the public and demanded the total abolition of the pork barrel system instead of merely reforming it or assigning it a new name. They also called for the removal of the president’s discretionary funds which have already amounted to one trillion pesos, according to a former head of the national treasury Leonor Briones.
The rise of the anti-pork movement exposed the inadequate and weak initiatives of the Aquino government to combat the pervasive corruption in the country. Aquino won in 2010 on a platform of good governance and transparency. He also successfully pushed for the impeachment of the Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona last year whom he accused of protecting former President Gloria Arroyo who is facing a plunder case and is under hospital arrest.
The pork barrel scam led many Filipinos to question the sincerity of Aquino’s anti-corruption crusade and rhetoric since it took the president more than three years before he announced a major review of the controversial program. He has also been quiet on the pork barrel abuses committed during his term. Further, he refused to do away with his “presidential pork” or even slash it to increase the funds for basic social services such as education, health, and housing.
It is hoped that the huge turn-out in last Monday’s protests will lead to the eventual overhaul of the country’s budgeting process. It is significant to note that at least 15 of 24 senators have already agreed to scrap the pork barrel.
The campaign should target other aspects of public finance where accountability is minimal or nonexistent. Vigilance is also essential to ensure that budget reforms are not merely palliative and that those who stole money or abused their power are appropriately punished.
Corruption cannot be removed without slaying the politics of patronage that fuels it and undermines democracy. The anti-pork campaign is a potentially radical political movement that could spark grassroots activism and invigorate other social forces needed to mount a broader and stronger challenge to the politics of corruption in the country.