By BENJIE OLIVEROS
President Benigno Aquino III finally blinked: he ordered a suspension of releases of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) pending the results of the investigation on the pork barrel scam involving Janet Lim-Napoles, and government officials, from both Congress and line agencies. President Aquino could no longer keep defending the pork barrel because the web of corruption unraveling has been widening and the calls for the abolition or at the minimum, reforming the pork barrel has been broadening to include church officials and business leaders.
As of last week, only five senators and 23 representatives of the Lower House were being linked to the pork barrel scam. Now the list of those with questions regarding their receipt and releases of pork barrel funds – not necessarily linked to the scam involving Napoles, but could be a scam nonetheless – is getting longer because of the results of the special audit that was conducted by the Commission on Audit. .
Because a lot more irregularities involving the pork barrel are being exposed, the campaign for its abolition, which was began by progressive party-list representatives under the Makabayan coalition, or at the minimum for drastic reforms to be instituted is gaining a lot of adherents.
This includes renewed calls for the passage and enactment into law of the Freedom of Information bill to ensure transparency in government by allowing citizens to gain access to its records. It could be remembered that the passage of the Freedom of Information bill was one of the campaign promises of then presidential candidate Benigno Aquino III. But upon its installation, the Aquino administration has been exerting all efforts – including delaying its passage, submitting a watered down version, and non-inclusion of the bill in its list of priorities – to evade the passage of the Freedom of Information bill.
The pork barrel scam is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the Aquino administration. Why?
This administration was built on and is able to maintain itself through its campaign and image of daang matuwid (righteous path) or good governance. It lays claim to economic growth by citing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates. However, these glowing figures are made irrelevant to the lives of the majority of Filipinos by worsening inequalities and poverty.
The results of the most recent Hunger survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations show that hunger incidence went up again to 22.7 percent during the second quarter of the year, after the GDP growth of 7.8 percent during the first quarter of the year. It is the second highest self-rated total hunger incidence under the Aquino administration, with the highest at 23.8 percent, which was registered in March 2012, the banner year when the country grew by 6.8 percent. Actually the 22.7 percent hunger incidence registered during the second quarter of 2013 is the fourth highest since 1998. The highest was the 23.8 percent in March 2012, then 23.7 percent in December 2008 and 23.4 in December 2009. Thus, the Aquino and Arroyo administrations, which registered the highest GDP growth rates in the country’s history, also earned the distinction of having the highest hunger incidence so far. This makes corruption, amid worsening hunger, even more scandalous.
The only things propping up the Aquino administration are its good trust rating and the optimism still pervading. This optimism emanates from the image of good governance and non-involvement in corruption scandals of the Aquino administration. But this could change depending on how the Aquino government would handle the current pork barrel scam.
If, although less likely, the Aquino administration abolishes the pork barrel system, it could lose its allies in Congress and of course, its own pork barrel and discretionary funds, but it would gain image or pogi points among the people. If it remains obstinate in its defense of the pork barrel system, it would be business as usual for both the executive and legislative branches of government, but its image of good governance would be eroded.
The most likely scenario is that the Aquino administration, by suspending the release of pork barrel funds but still refusing to abolish it, is trying to let the issue cool down before proceeding to business as usual. It would pin everything on Janet Lim-Napoles and her cohorts who reportedly got 30 percent of the stolen pork barrel funds, and not seriously run after those who got the 70 percent from the ranks of lawmakers and government officials. It could make a sample of running after one or two lawmakers, mainly from the opposition, and middle level government officials of implementing and releasing national government agencies.
What the Aquino government really wants is to return to business as usual. With its image being eroded, it could still get a semblance of being in business as usual but it would never be as before. It would be flooded with protests that are as real as the floods we have experienced recently. Of course the seemingly unsolvable floods we have been experiencing since time immemorial, despite the billions supposedly being spent by the government to address it, is incontrovertible proof that corruption is still prevalent.