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Philippines- the fight against corruption gathers speed

Philippines- the fight against corruption gathers speed

By Jules Maaten

2 February 2012

Jules Maaten, Country Director Philippines for the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Freedom examines latest delelopments.

Are the Philippines really capable of ridding themselves of corruption and dealing with past abuses of power? The Filipino people are counting on the liberal President Benigno Aquino, elected in a landslide victory in 2010. According to a national survey from October 2011, 72% of the population trusts President Aquino to be capable of solving the problem of corruption in the country. 

Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) was time and again accused of electoral sabotage, corruption and of violating the constitution. However, being backed by her loyalists in the Lower House and in the Supreme Court, investigations of the accusations did not take place during her nine year term as president of the Philippines. 

In September 2010, after only three months in office, newly elected president Aquino’s very first Executive Order established the so called “Truth Commission” designed to investigate irregularities by former state officials such as human rights violations, electoral fraud and cases of corruption. In December 2010, the Commission was proclaimed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court headed by Arroyo loyalist Chief Justice Renato Corona. 

From April to September 2011, six cases of corruption were filed against former President Gloria Arroyo. One of these was the alleged use of nearly P1.6 billion in fertilizer funds to bolster her presidential bid in 2004. Another case dealt with the dubious national broadband network (NTE) contract signed between the Arroyo government and the Chinese telecommunication company ZTE. Allegations claim that this US$ 262 Million contract was overpriced to pay off bribes to government officials. One of the controversial election cases was the alleged manipulation of the 2007 senatorial elections. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is accused of personally instructing the governor of a province in Mindanao to ensure a landslide victory for her senatorial candidates. 

More and more witnesses have stepped up to testify against the former President. The former election supervisor of one of the Mindanao provinces claims, that massive fraud was committed in the 2004 general elections of which Arroyo was the principal beneficiary. Two former provincial election supervisors from another Mindanao province submitted sworn statements that accuse former election chief Benjamin Abalos - a known GMA loyalist - of giving a personal order to skew poll results in favor of Arroyo’s candidates. 

In August 2011, the Ministry of Justice put Arroyo on the watch list of the Bureau of Immigration (BI), which meant that she would be unable to leave the country. In October, Secretary of Justice Leila De Lima issued another watch list order against Arroyo in connection with the joint investigation of the Ministry of Justice and the Commission on Elections on alleged massive cheating during the 2007 mid-term elections. In consequence, a travel ban was imposed on the former president. 

Prompted by Arroyo, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Renato Corona issued a so-called Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against the government directive that barred Arroyo from leaving the country. The Supreme Court order was followed by an order issued by Justice Secretary de Lima. While seeking to leave the country, immigration officials stopped Arroyo and her husband at the airport of Manila. Three days later, on 18 November 2011, Arroyo was charged with election manipulation by the Election Commission, followed by her immediate arrest at the St. Luke’s Medical Center in Taguig City. She has remained in custody since then. Many were surprised by the drastic steps the Aquino administration took against the Supreme Court ruling. Letting Arroyo leave the country seemed a convenient way out of the situation, but De Lima and Aquino would not take the easy way out. Arroyo is now forced to face the numerous allegations against her. 

According to the “Social Weather Survey”, conducted in December 2011, 69% of Filipinos believe that the legal proceedings against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are fair, 17% say they are too drastic, while 13% find them not drastic enough.

Corona: The last hold-out

The Supreme Court’s issuance of the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), which was processed with uncommon speed and without even hearing the government’s side of the argument, was the tipping point for President Aquino. He openly criticized Chief Justice Renato Corona for demonstrating his partiality to his former boss, President Gloria Arroyo. As early as 1998, when Gloria Arroyo was still

Vice President, he already served as her chief of-staff and spokesperson and later as presidential chief-of-staff after Arroyo became President. A year later, in 2002, she appointed him as associate of the Supreme Court. He was Chief Justice, instantly after the May 2010 Presidential elections – the most notorious of her so-called “midnight appointments”. These are unconstitutional because the outgoing President is supposed to leave such important appointments to her newly elected successor. The Supreme Court however, dominated by Arroyo-appointees, ratified the appointment. 

The Liberal Party of the Philippines was at the forefront of the events, and played its cards well. On 12 December the House of Representatives moved to impeach Corona, led by Liberal Party stalwarts Representative Niel Tupas as lead prosecutor, Representative (and LP secretary general) Jun Abaya as the impeachment manager and Deputy Speaker Erin Tañada as spokesperson of the prosecution panel. 188 out of 284 members of the House of Representatives voted for the impeachment of the Chief Justice. The eight articles of impeachment charges against Corona include public betrayal, abuse of power, corruption and partiality to president Arroyo and her loyalists. Moreover, he is accused of the non-disclosure of the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth. The articles of impeachment have now been submitted to the Upper House (the Senate), which will serve as the impeachment court, commencing on 16 January 2012.

It’s all about Freedom, after all

As the media hype on the impeachment issue continues, more and more Filipinos become aware of the true background and motives of their former leaders. The speed and seriousness of the events surprised many lawmakers, legal professionals as well as the general public. It was widely expected that the administration would prosecute some mid-level officials for corruption. Instead, the government aimed as high as possible. Ultimately, the arrest of former President Arroyo and the impeachment trial of Renato Corona sent a signal of serious reform that is likely to create a ripple effect throughout the Philippine bureaucracy. These recent events might spur reforms in the judiciary branch of the government and the Supreme Court such as the establishment of criteria for appointing representatives of state and judiciary or financial transparency for people holding public offices. 

The Philippine Office of the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Freedom has been directly involved by supporting the country’s leading and most reliable online news organization, Newsbreak, in investigating the irregularities of the Supreme Court and the allegedly undeserved doctorate degree in civil law that the Chief Justice recently obtained from one of the most prestigious universities in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Newsbreak has revealed, that Corona had accepted financial amenities for a luxury apartment from a real estate company that faces allegations in the Supreme Court. 

To the discomfort of many amongst the ruling elite of the Philippines, Aquino is consistently enforcing his main campaign promise to pursue those who abused their power for almost a decade. Starting with the impeachment trial against Chief Justice Corona on 16th January, the next few weeks will show to what extent the country’s legal and political system can cope with this change of revolutionary proportions. 

Jules Maaten works as Country Director Philippines, the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Freedom and this article first appeared in the Foundation's journal in January 2012

Philippines-The fight against corruption gathers speed