“PEOPLE Power”, which toppled the corrupt regime of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, was in the minds of protestors massed in Manila’s main park on August 26th. From families and schoolchildren to nuns, the tens of thousands of Filipinos were demanding an end to pork-barrel politics, after a government audit earlier this month revealed that politicians had funnelled over 6 billion pesos ($135m) into 82 dodgy NGOs. Many demonstrating saw themselves as the heirs of ’86.
Mr Marcos is long gone, but graft remains the bane of the Philippines. The country still ranks as one of the most corrupt in South-East Asia, despite a boost in the tables last year (from 129th to 105th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index). Since taking power in 2010, Benigno Aquino, the Philippines’ president, has led a half-hearted campaign against fraud. His neat election slogan, “If there’s no corruption, there’s no poverty”, won him the presidency, because it suggested a tidy solution to the country’s two biggest problems. But for three years his efforts have consisted of little else than the arrest and prosecution of his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, on trial for misusing millions in state lottery funds.
So Mr Aquino had an opportunity to advance his campaign when his government’s chief auditor reported this month that a dozen senators and scores of congressmen had directed billions in pork-barrel money into fishy NGOs over three years. The money (given to members of Congress to spend in their constituencies on projects of their own choosing) was disbursed during Mrs Arroyo’s term. But Mr Aquino’s first reaction was to defend the pork-barrel scheme. That is because he is at the apex of the Philippines’ pyramid of political patronage, so has the final say on whether other politicians get their pork. When he was member of Congress, he received pork-barrel funds. In the absence of an effective political party system, the pork-barrel arrangement gives Mr Aquino a degree of influence over Congress.
The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a government programme, has institutionalised pork barrel in the Philippines. Each of its 24 senators receives 200m pesos ($4.5m) per year and each of its 300-odd congressmen receives 70m pesos ($1.6m). The scheme has its merits. Roads get paved. Poor students receive scholarships. A washerwoman asked her congressman to pay for an urgent mastectomy (she now votes for him religiously). Politicians are supposed to use the fund to finance their pet projects, but some use it to enrich themselves at public expense. The arrangement shores up a political establishment made of powerful families that monopolise elective positions generation after generation.
It was only once social media began to call for a mass protest (one-million strong, organisers hoped) against pork that Mr Aquino changed his mind. On August 23rd, flanked by the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives, he pledged to scrap the PDAF. The public received his bid with a dose of scepticism—and it did not deter the porcine masks and costumes from rallying. Congress must first agree to abandon the scheme. And an alternative set-up for financing local development projects, proposed by Mr Aquino, sounded like pork-barrel politics with a new name.
The protesters (numbering about 65,000) were nowhere near as numerous as their predecessors who ousted Mr Marcos. But their demonstration was the biggest since Mr Aquino took office. His approval rating, at 70%, is among the highest in the Philippines’ history. Demonstrators put the president on notice that they expect not just slogans about corruption, but the demolition of the political edifice that shelters it.
(Photo credit: AFP)
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