Philippines: “Politicking” and the “Crusade Against Corruption”

2003

Julius Bautista

On the night of 8 November 2003, travellers at Manila’s International Airport went about their business little suspecting that an armed takeover was unfolding in the air traffic control tower nearby. After storming the tower armed with artillery and explosives, Panfilo Villaruel and a cohort were shot dead by SWAT operatives just as he was being interviewed over national radio. Moments before his death, the former Department of Transport official despaired over the airwaves at the extent of the government’s ‘corruption’ - by now an obstinately familiar indictment on public institutions in the Philippines, even at the highest levels of officialdom.

The airport takeover is the latest episode in a year marked not so much by the proven incidence of corruption, but by the dramatic and often violent means through which it has been alleged. Like the militant takeover of the Oakwood complex (described in http://www.aseanfocus.com/asiananalysis/article.cfm?articleID=675>), the airport siege was a violent enactment of the agendas of those waging a campaign against the unscrupulous undertakings of their superiors. That such drastic undertakings can recur within six months of each other not only suggests an alarming lack of confidence in the integrity of government office-bearers, but that the act of alleging ‘corruption’ has itself attained among Filipinos a great amount of rhetorical as well as political currency.

Allegations of ‘corruption’ are not only accompanied by show of arms, but through the very mechanism of Congress itself. Villaruel’s control tower takeover took place as Filipinos were on high alert amidst a petition being filed for the impeachment of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Hilario Davide. (He presided over the Senate impeachment trial of Joseph Estrada and later inaugurated the Macapagal-Arroyo’ Presidency.) On 22 October, a day after an earlier impeachment complaint lodged by Estrada was dismissed, close to 90 congressmen drafted a second complaint against the Chief Justice alleging his misuse of Judiciary funds. Davide’s detractors, mostly aligned with business magnate Eudardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco’s National People’s Coalition (NPC), claimed that they too were on a ‘crusade against corruption’ to show that not even the Chief Justice can be ‘above the law.’ In so doing, they marshaled the support of many rank-and-file court workers and clerks, who they portrayed as the biggest victims of the Davide’s supposed malpractice.

In denying the allegations, the Chief Justice claimed that not only were these proceedings unconstitutionally unfounded, but they were ‘motivated by politics’. Just as the Magdalo uprising was thought to have been masterminded by unscrupulous and shady constituents, the local media was quick to insinuate that these moves were driven by a more insidious confluence of agendas, most notably those of Cojuangco (who has cases pending in the Supreme Court and has had unfavourable rulings of late), a ‘vindictive’ ex-President Estrada, and even of President Arroyo who has since reneged on her promise not to run in the 2004 elections.

This is the second impeachment complaint ‘initiated’ against the Chief Justice in a year, and it was upon that basis that it was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on 10 November 2003 (thereby preventing its transmittal to Senate hearing). Though a ‘constitutional crisis’ has been averted, the episode still impacts significantly on Filipinos whose country, as the year draws to a close, suffers the international stigma of being a volatile and unreliable democracy. Yet observers of the Philippine situation must be aware that ‘corruption’ may not necessarily refer merely to the breach of duty of those so accused. Rather, ‘corruption’ has become a most pervasive political and rhetorical weapon, often made against the spectre of more politically sinister and self-serving ‘politicking’ lurking beneath. Unlike the most recent armed takeovers waged the name of corruption, however, the combatants in Congress are not so easily condemned, since their acts are more effectively couched under the pedantic and technical veil of constitutional legality, if not of patriotism and moral decency.

WATCHPOINT: The highly dramatic allegations of corruption are likely to condition the public mood as political candidates and coalitions start to make their intentions known for the Presidential elections in 2004.

 

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