By BENJIE OLIVEROS
Social media was bustling yesterday as soon as Malacañang requested broadcast media networks for airtime between 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. so that President Benigno Aquino III could address the Filipino people. The anticipation further intensified when the president’s address was moved one to two hours later. Rarely do presidents interrupt primetime programs to address the people. Presidents make their announcements usually through press conferences, which generally land in the evening news. The most memorable special broadcasts of presidential addresses were, of course, the declaration of Martial Law by the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos and the “I am sorry” address of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who admitted to calling then Commission on Elections official Virgilio Garcillano during the height of the counting of ballots for the 2004 presidential elections where she was running for a regular term.
Since these rather extraordinary times are etched in the public’s memory, naturally, there were a lot of speculations on what President Aquino would say, especially now that the Aquino administration is on the defensive. It has lately been parrying accusations that its officials are also involved in misusing or pocketing funds, that Malacañang accorded special treatment to Janet Lim-Napoles, who acted as a conduit of legislators to siphon their pork barrel funds, to protect its flanks and that it created its own pork barrel fund the Disbursement Acceleration Program, which it used to allegedly bribe lawmakers who voted for the impeachment of former chief justice Renato Corona.
The more optimistic netizens were half expecting that finally, the president would announce the abolition of the pork barrel system. Others were joking about what the president would say such as, he is announcing his new girlfriend, the president is announcing the appointment of his youngest sister Kris, who is in show business, as his spokesperson, the president would say he is sorry, among others.
When President Aquino delivered his address, a lot were surprised. The surprise came not because what the president said was earthshaking; it was because what the president said was nothing new. He has been repeatedly saying these things in every opportunity that he gets: that his government is not corrupt; that the corruption involving pork barrel funds was committed from 2007-2009, during the previous administration; that the administration is already running after those involved; that the Disbursement Acceleration Program is different from the much-hated pork barrel fund called the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF); and that those guilty are trying to muddle the issue to escape being held accountable. Just recently, President Aquino reminded the people to “keep their eye on the ball” and not to lose sight of the fact that what is being investigated and pursued is the corruption involving the PDAF and three senators are already facing charges for this.
Perhaps what came more as a shock to people is that President Aquino is still trying to defend the pork barrel system despite the fact that his administration is already on the defensive for doing so and that in fact, the issue has already affected the net satisfaction ratings of the presidency. Did the president offer any acceptable justification for maintaining the DAP and his pork barrel funds? None whatsoever.
The projects that he mentioned, which were supposedly funded through the DAP could very well be funded by budgets of line agencies. His reasoning that the president’s pork barrel should be retained so that people in areas hit by disasters could have access to relief funds is absurd. If we would follow that reasoning then why don’t we just place the whole budget of the government to the president’s discretionary funds and that of infrastructure projects in the provinces to the pork barrel funds of legislators?
It is also worth noting that after President Aquino announced the abolition of the PDAF before the August 23 Million People March, Malacañang later backtracked reasoning that only Congress could abolish it.
Taking all of these arguments aside, the only thing left that could “justify” retaining the pork barrel of legislators (even if projects were identified beforehand) and the discretionary funds of the president is Aquino’s claim that he is not a “thief”; he is the one running after “thieves.” By extension, he is also claiming that not one person in his official family is a thief. His claim to infallibility is sanctimonious to say the least. For one, there have been cases of irregularities involving Cabinet officials, the president just brushes it aside. Second, if we were to remove all thieves in Congress, perhaps the fingers and toes of one person would be enough to count those who would be left standing. Even the Supreme Court is investigating the corruption within the judiciary.
What the president fails to see is that when he tried to rally the people against the corruption of the previous administration, his own government would not be spared; when he spoke against how the pork barrel funds of Congress under the previous administration were rechanneled to line the pockets of legislators, the people’s anger would be directed against the whole pork barrel and discretionary fund system.
It may not be feasible to immediately remove all corrupt politicians and government officials in one broad sweep, because that would entail radically restructuring the political and electoral system of the country first. But what the people are working for, in this case, is to remove even just one cog in the system that breeds corruption and patronage politics: pork barrel and discretionary funds.
The issue is not being muddled when the Aquino administration was forced to explain the existence of its own pork barrel creation, the DAP. Neither is the people losing sight of the target when the clamor for the removal of pork barrel funds was extended to the president’s own pork barrel and discretionary funds, including the Malampaya funds – funds from the royalties paid to the government for gas and oil extraction and production off Palawan island – which the president failed to mention. What happened was the target of the people’s protest was broadened and sharpened. Now, the Aquino administration is faced with the dilemma of either addressing the people’s demand for an end to the pork barrel and discretionary fund system or continue being dragged into where it never imagined to be: in the eye of the storm of the people’s anger against corruption.