Why Prosecuting GMA is an election issue

This is an unpublished article by Jenina Joy Chavez. She is Senior Associate with Focus on the Global South and Fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. She can be reached at j.chavez@focusweb.org.

Over the years, Filipinos have come to accept that corruption is a part of Philippine politics. But history has shown that if the indications of culpability are strong, people are moved to do something. This happened in EDSA 1986 – sobra na, tama na! was the call against Marcos. This also happened in EDSA Dos when Filipinos saw firsthand how the paper trail of corruption led directly to Mr. Estrada.

President Arroyo’s incumbency has been hounded by highly publicized controversies. The Senate investigations on the ZTE and the fertilizer scam, extensively covered by media, gave the public access to testimony and documentation of corruption.

A Note on Corruption

Corruption is neither the only nor the main reason for our economic woes, but it does imply direct economic costs.

First, corruption results in the loss of significant resources that could have been available for productive activities and social services. The World Bank estimated that in the 20-year period between 1977 and 1997, the Philippines lost US$48 billion. In a speech in May 2006, Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrrez claimed that we lost the same amount to corruption in only five years from 2001 to 2005.

Second, corruption scares foreign and domestic investors alike. In the 2009 Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the Philippines ranked 139th out of 180 countries ranked from the least to the most corrupt (Somalia and Afghanistan were most corrupt in this series). In 2008, according to the World Bank Control of Corruption Indicator, the Philippines was less able to control corruption than ¾ of all the countries included in the series.

Third, corruption increases the cost of doing business in the country. In 2008, the Social Weather Stations Survey of Enterprises reported that seven out of ten local firms were approached by a government official or employee for bribes. This is not an encouraging sign for local business that kept shrinking. Gross domestic investment as a percent of gross domestic product has consistently fallen under Mrs. Arroyo’s term, from 19% in 2001 to 14% in 2009.

Corruption in and of itself does not alone cause an economy to fail or for poverty to worsen, but its pervasive presence detracts from addressing these issues. It distorts the incentives for seeking public office, where the public interest becomes secondary to self-interest. Public office becomes an opportunity, where the prospects for earning big through irregular means can be big. Take for instance the fertilizer fund scam – fertilizers and farm inputs, ostensibly to help an ailing agricultural sector, were purchased at ten times their real costs. The NBN-ZTE deal also highlighted the income-generating possibilities from big infrastructure projects, as evidenced by the estimated US$130 million overprice.

Corruption subverts and discredits the government’s regulatory institutions. This results in the low confidence and approval ratings of public agencies, which undermines the capacity of government to do economic policy in the long run. Many even in the bureaucracy would favor private operations over public, precisely because of the corruption issue. Many would erroneously equate the corruption in government with the ineffectiveness or undesirability of public provisioning, or of even greater concern, of public intervention in the economic sphere. The distrust in government translates to a distrust of public policy. Corruption has to be addressed so that government can enjoy wider support for bolder economic and social policies.

Finally, addressing corruption and prosecuting those who were involved in the weakening of our institutions is also about justice. Boundaries may and probably have been overstepped and laws violated. Public office should never cloak crimes or be used as protection for criminals.

Rating the Candidates: Prosecution as Platform

The people have shown their frustration through the negative net approval ratings for President Arroyo.  President Arroyo’s net approval ratings plummeted from a +24 in March 2001 to a -38 in December 2009, with a consistently negative rating since March 2004.  The overwhelming win of the united opposition in the 2004 vote was a vote against Mrs. Arroyo. The outpouring of emotions and show of support when President Aquino died represented a people mourning the loss of someone whom they saw as the last moral leader this country had. In the elections, the weak showing of administration candidate Gilberto Teodoro also relates to the perception of high-level corruption and misrule under GMA’s presidency.

For this reason the issue of prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo after she steps down from the Presidency is an urgent election topic. How the candidates respond to this issue signals whether there will be concrete steps to pursue corruption cases involving the GMA presidency. A stand leaving to the institutions the matter signals that there will be no active effort on the part of the executive to pursue the matter. A stand to pursue investigations and to resolve the issue signals greater commitment. It also indicates what we may expect to be the attitude of the leadership towards corruption during their incumbency, in terms of tolerance and in terms of the level of priority that will be given to governance reforms to address corruption.

Of the nine presidential candidates, Benigno Aquino, Jr. And Bro. Eddie Villanueva show consistency and strong commitment to governance, with a specific objective of prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo and those involved in corruption during her term. Both have substantial, specific and coherent platforms on governance. Aquino has specifically fashioned his presidential bid from an anti-corruption line. Bro. Eddie has the eradication of bad governance on top of his seven-point agenda. However, both lack a track record – Aquino has not played a leading role in any of the major issues in the past, while Villanueva has not been directly involved in politics, his strong statements indicating an under-estimation of the institutional and political difficulties he will face.

Senator Jamby Madrigal has a radical overall platform, and in governance, has concrete understanding of the primary institutions that need to be involved. However, she does not show much appreciation of the politics that need to be considered. Her “selfless government service” sounds nice, but lacks substance beyond prosecution of the corrupt and protection of whistleblowers.

Senators Manny Villar and Richard Gordon come in third, with both not giving prosecuting Mrs. Arroyo a high priority. Both are managers who promise to lift the country from the quagmire through their brand of professional planning and vision. Both have shown streaks of independence, Villar in the Estrada impeachment and Gordon in the Senate investigations of the NBN/ZTE and the fertilizer fund scams. However, the weak or belated inclusion of prosecution in their platform indicates a poor recognition of the extent of corruption and raises doubt on the actions that they will take to address it.

Nicanor Perlas and JC delos Reyes breathe sincerity and an avid desire to change things. Unfortunately, both suffer from lack of track record and the absence of a coalition that will support their agenda.

At the bottom rung would be Joseph Estrada and Gilbert Teodoro, for the patent lack of credibility on the issue. The corruption taint on Estrada was cause for his ouster, while Teodoro is overly emphatic about his debt of gratitude to Mrs. Arroyo.

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