ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Will Corruption Bring Down the Philippines’ Duterte Government?

Alleged corruption in the procurement of COVID-19 supplies implicates a former aide and close ally of the president.

Will Corruption Bring Down the Philippines’ Duterte Government?
Credit: Facebook/Rody Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has so far survived accusations that his government’s “war on drugs” led to crimes against humanity and that his close ties with Beijing, despite China’s military build up in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), have undermined the country’s sovereignty. But can his government withstand a major corruption issue which is now being probed in the Senate?

Allegations of corruption were previously tackled in some government agencies but they never directly implicated the president’s office. Besides, Duterte has been consistent in reiterating his pledge against corruption. “One whiff of corruption, you’re out,” he once told government employees. Since last year, he used his weekly televised speeches to disclose the names of public officials who were either suspended or dismissed from service because of corruption.

But a controversy currently hounding the Department of Health (DOH) has turned into an explosive political scandal implicating the president’s former aide, Senator Bong Go.

It all started with the release of reports by the Commission on Audit (COA) regarding the low utilization of pandemic aid by the DOH. The revelation that health workers had been deprived of adequate subsidies because of bureaucratic lapses has triggered public outrage, and revived earlier calls for the removal of DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III for bungling the government’s pandemic response.

Legislators cited the COA reports to flag the questionable expenses of the government. These anomalous transactions include the overpriced procurement of face masks and face shields by the government. During a senate hearing, it was revealed that the official in charge of the dubious procurement previously worked under the office of Senator Go when he was still special assistant to Duterte.

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Duque has rejected the charge that his agency mishandled billions of pesos. For his part, Senator Go has denied that the official who ordered the overpriced medical equipment was once his aide. When other senators presented additional proof, Go suddenly advised Duque to “make the supreme sacrifice” by resigning his post.

Go is not just a senator. He is a former presidential aide who continued to be play a prominent role in Duterte’s public functions even after his election as senator in 2019. He is the president’s personal assistant and closest adviser. An allegation of corruption against Go could hurt the president’s credibility.

This is the reason why Duterte did not hide his disdain about the reports published by COA. He belittled the work of COA and defended the integrity of his cabinet members, especially Duque. He also dismissed the ongoing Senate investigation and advised the public not to believe the “posturing” of some legislators. He even used old COA reports to flag fund misuses of the previous government. He vowed to audit COA and other government agencies once he gets elected as vice president in 2022.

The issue is far from over. The senate hearing first looked into the accountability of the DOH until it was revealed that an official with links to Senator Go awarded a hefty contract to a small company with ties to a former adviser of the president.

It appears that the senate is eager to extract more information about this scandal as it prepares to scrutinize the 2022 budget proposal of the Duterte government. There are indications that Duque will be pressured to finally resign but it does not mean that the issue will die down quickly since the election season will start soon. Public frustration and fear over the surging COVID-19 cases could turn into anger over what some senators call “pandemic profit.”

Duterte is aware of the political impact of the corruption probe, which is why he is constantly ridiculing COA, the Senate, and the political opposition. He knows that a corruption case involving billions of pesos has the potential to spark widespread discontent that could lead to his ouster, similar to what happened to former President Joseph Estrada when he was deposed by a People Power uprising in 2001. The late Noynoy Aquino, Duterte’s predecessor, was also a popular president until a disbursement program he distributed to legislators was declared unconstitutional, which tainted his reputation.

Duterte will probably ride on his supposedly high public trust rating to survive this crisis but he has lost another claim that his government has been successful in fighting corruption. Meanwhile, the opposition has found a smoking gun that they can use to their advantage to demand accountability and defeat the electoral plans of Duterte and his family.