Centrist Democracy Political Institute - Items filtered by date: February 2024

Seventh of a series

THIS week marks the 38th anniversary of the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution. For a time, EDSA was celebrated yearly on a grand scale, commemorating the end of a dictatorship and restoring the aspirations of the Filipinos for a better life. Expectations have faded since, and so have the celebrations. Cory and FVR, two Philippine presidents, products of EDSA and keepers of its flame, are long gone, except for one major player, the elder Marcos' Defense secretary, Juan Ponce Enrile, who turned a century old this month, whom many suspect cannot die — just like the biblical wandering Jew. In the intervening years, as is wont in history, perspective changes.

Decades back, I wrote about the 1986 events to lock down my own memories while still fresh, anticipating that as history is dynamic and in flux, views constantly change contingent upon where one sits. And more sinister, the protagonists, particularly those who were booted out, will somehow manufacture fresh perspectives alien to the events of those days. And it is understandable, as the interpretations of events are written by the victors. The paradox over the years is necessarily centered on who the victors and the vanquished are. Today, the latter is ascendant and has attempted to reinterpret the meaning of the 1986 events.

Looking back, many of us, fed by our egos, deemed ourselves major participants in great events. But looking through the prism of history, we were simply bystanders, a level higher than those known as "usiseros" and "miron."

EPPC 1986

I reprint excerpts of my experience and thoughts on those days:

"I was not at EDSA. There was no EDSA in Davao City. But I was part of the decades-long political struggle that eventually brought about the upheaval during those heady four days in February 1986, now known worldwide as the EDSA People Power Revolution.

"This is not a tome or even an attempt at a thesis examining the actual events leading toward the culmination of decades of a seething political cauldron. This is a simple recounting from personal memory to answer an age-old conundrum '...where were you when it happened.' Perhaps this is also a way of situating one's role in the great episodes of the times. We hanker to be part of the momentous movements of history and even begin to presume that we may indeed have been a major participant thereof — when, in fact, we simply may have taken on a minor role — bit players in an unfolding drama on the world's stage. But it is this trifling part, when multiplied by the thousands that makes the involvement of each of us anywhere within the stream of events singularly significant. In this way, our collective action becomes history-making. We need not have been at EDSA — we were the spirit of EDSA."

Cory was gifted by the Filipino a revolutionary government, and the euphoric citizenry bestowed upon her powers that could have corrected the inequities of the past. Instead, she denied this gift to bring back her own cherished concept of democracy, the old status quo ante, oblivious to the fact that prior to the martial law regime, our concepts of democracy imposed by our American colonials were dysfunctional. But Cory, a headstrong housewife, was a captive of her class, born of the elite and the entitled. Politically naïve, she had to impose upon the country a system congruent to Western concepts outlandish to the culture and Filipino political dynamics.

Local governments and OICs

She succumbed to the demands of America, the standard mantra for a universal election to legitimize her government when the power structures up to the local level were still controlled by the old systemic anomalies, political dynasties and their allies among the elite and the oligarchy. She fired the Marcos-era local government executives, the good along with the bad (mayors and governors), replacing them with mostly incompetent political amateurs — her OICs at the local government level (LGUs). The elections, barely 15 months after EDSA 1986, won for Cory the Senate and House of Representatives, but the more important local governments were no match for the entrenched political families.

Today's column, Part 7, is the culmination of a series of essays on the profiles of corruption of presidents and their administrations post-Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. It is a sad note and an indictment of the Filipino that we as a people have not extricated ourselves from the world's perception of a corrupt country. We rank 116th of 180 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) in 2022 — bookended by Sierra Leone and the Dominican Republic. It is a truism that the Philippines' Third World version of public service is steeped in practices, from bureaucratic slippages and leakages to rent-seeking and regulatory capture — all euphemisms for graft and corruption in government.

Realities of PH governance

 But today, four decades after EDSA, our hopes and expectations are dashed; the culture of corruption continues to be deeply rooted in governance. Graft is institutionalized at the top levels of government. What democracy brought us is the democratization of the looting of public coffers. The tragedy of it all is that it has become a way of life for those who are in public service, permeating those they serve.

In my penultimate column, I suggested to the current Marcos a path he could take: "First, get the unelected members of your family out of the hierarchy of governance and the decision-making process, and use your powers as a strong president to discipline the elected ones. The second is to apply your predecessor the Deegong's dictum, which tragically he failed to follow through: cut off the heads of any of your people tainted by even 'a whiff of corruption.'"

To this, I propose an addendum — for the son to borrow a page from the father's playbook. In September 1972 upon the declaration of martial law, Makoy reorganized government and established a new code of conduct for the bureaucracy directed towards cleaning up the government, starting with the notorious Bureaus of Customs (BoC), Internal Revenue (BIR), the judiciary and regulatory agencies. He called for their resignations — which in these times may be impossible under the current system. What BBM can do immediately instead is to put in place a system of financial rewards to incentivize whistleblowers who report corruption in government? To democratize the initiatives, the process must involve the citizenry to the level where they deal with the bureaucracy on a day-to-day basis; the police involved in racketeering, "tong" collections in the street/traffic level, protecting illegal vendors, drug dealers, house of prostitution and gambling dens; the "hulidap" system of spurious arrest designed to extort payola; 'fixers' in government agencies, collecting fees for licenses, birth/marriage certificates, fees to cut red-tapes; "laglag bala" that victimizes OFWs at airport immigration; and a host of petty corruption at local level.

These may not totally eliminate corruption in government, but they can certainly abate the hemorrhage. But this needs the political will of the president.

Does BBM have it?

Published in LML Polettiques

Sixth of a series

JOSEPH "Erap" Estrada has gone through several elective positions that prepared him for the presidency — post-Ferdinand E. Marcos. His partisans described him as one of the most experienced Philippine politicians, having been elected vice president for six years, another six years as senator before that, and mayor of a major city for 17 years. Compare this to Cory, a housewife; FVR, a soldier; GMA, an academic; PNoy, an entitled son; and the Deegong, a local politician.

He was an idolized local movie star playing lead roles in a hundred movies depicting tough characters, oftentimes a gangster, but always had the interest of the common tao and the marginalized. His persona hews closely to a screenplay of one who comes from the underclass and champions their cause, mostly against oppression by the rich and the elite who made fun of him as a buffoon, driving the masses instead to his corner. And always in the movies, against all odds, his character transcends the harsh life of poverty, akin to a Horatio Alger "rags-to-riches" trajectory. The Filipino moviegoers lapped up this storyline, unable to distinguish Erap's screen persona from reality as a politician.

Erap's appetites were grand and undisciplined, from his womanizing to his peculiar taste for the libertine lifestyle, quaffing P5,000-P20,000 a pop for his favorite Petrus red wine, a nightly drinking binge with his "barkada" at the Palace as described by his short-lived chief of staff, Aprodicio Laquian to building a "Boracay Mansion" for one mistress with white sand around the pool. He was a dilettante uninterested in the ship of state but captive to populist tendencies.

He was a charismatic, talented actor who endeared himself to his audience. He understood the use of symbols, his trademark white wristband, gestures and mannerisms of a "kanto boy" (vagabond), mumbling the English language, the elite's lingua franca. All these faux performances appealed to the masses — the poor and disenfranchised, propelling him to the heights of elective political office. This script was blurred between his screen roles and his real life. His presidency, he said, was the "greatest role of his life." And indeed, it was. In the 31 months as president, reality caught up with him. He was ousted from the presidency in a popular uprising, EDSA People Power 2, during an aborted impeachment trial for corruption. He was later tried for the crime of plunder for the embezzlement of $80 million (P4 billion), found guilty and sentenced to reclusion perpetua (life imprisonment). He spent almost seven years in prison but was granted a pardon by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, his former vice president, in October 2007— a detention longer than his stint as the country's president. It may be noted that GMA herself spent time in detention for similar criminal charges — although she was later acquitted ("Profiles in corruption: GMA, Hello Garci, NBN-ZTE, atbp.," The Manila Times, Feb 7, 2024).

Jueteng and tobacco excise tax

Erap was corrupt, accused of illegal gambling payoffs, kickbacks and jueteng scandals. His plunder case consisted of "...his acceptance of P545 million proceeds from (jueteng), an illegal gambling; misappropriation of P130 million in excise taxes from tobacco; receiving a P189.7-million commission from the sale of the shares of Belle Corp., a real estate firm; and owning some P3.2 billion in a bank account under the name Jose Velarde" (Ombudsman charges at Sandiganbayan, April 4, 2001).

The Ilocos Sur governor, Luis 'Chavit' Singson, Erap's close friend who later turned on him, allegedly personally handed over P400 million of jueteng money payoffs and P180 million from the government price subsidy for the tobacco farmers' marketing cooperative. Erap's gambling buddy, Charlie "Atong" Ang, was also found to have funneled amounts to the president. Curiously, it was established in the trial that the bank account where these funds were lodged was the president's — attaching his signature, signing himself in with impunity and stupidly so as "Jose Velarde."

In some ways, Estrada has paid for his transgressions and will go down in history as a corrupt president, ousted from the presidency through a defective impeachment process. Were it not for the pardon of President GMA, Erap would have rotted in jail.

At this point, BBM should learn his lessons well, not only from the Erap presidency but from the preceding regimes: Cory, FVR, GMA, PNoy and Duterte's (parts 1-5, "Profiles in corruption," TMT, Jan. 17- Feb. 14, 2024). It is understandable that a priority of the son is to exonerate the presidency and image of his father, Ferdinand Sr. What better way than to clear a pathway for his own presidency that will be an antithesis to those of his predecessors? What this column has been attempting to establish by highlighting the glaring perversions of each president is to portray that these are part of an institutionalized corruption tolerated from the top and has migrated to the body politic.

The venerable Jaime Cardinal Sin, a nemesis of the old Makoy, said it succinctly in 1986: "Ali Baba has fled the Philippines, but the 40 thieves have been left behind!" And subsequent presidencies may have embraced many of them, but more deadly, their mindset of corruption and perversion of governance pervaded subsequent regimes, and a culture of corruption continues and has become a way of life not only at the level of bureaucracy but even among the populace. BBM should understand that to succeed, this should not be tolerated. This is the single most important factor that could sink his own.

Lessons to be learned

Unlike the other presidents in this series, BBM has so much more at stake as he must also carry the burden of his father's reputation and the exigencies of his regime. I reiterate what I wrote in my column in the first part of this series (TMT, Jan. 31, 2024):

"Our intent is for the current president, Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., to revive the investigations of these corruption cases. Having gone full circle from his father's martial law regime to his more open and democratic administration, my thesis is if he could resolve these scandals and bring the perpetrators to justice for the remaining years of his presidency — even for this alone — he could still be a good president, nay, a great one! And perhaps in the process, he could rehabilitate his father's image — or at least mitigate the nadir of governance in the annals of Philippine history."

Admittedly, it is a nearly impossible task and a long road to rehabilitating a father's legacy while at the same time shaping his own. I propose two simple lessons the young Marcos could learn from this series of columns on presidential corruption as his point of departure for the rest of his term.

First, get the unelected members of your family out of the hierarchy of governance and the decision-making process, and use your powers as a strong president to discipline the elected ones. The second is to apply your predecessor the Deegong's dictum, which tragically he failed to follow through: cut off the heads of any of your people tainted by even "a whiff of corruption."

The rest is up to you. Good hunting!

Published in LML Polettiques

Fifth of a series

PRESIDENT Fidel Valdez Ramos (FVR) is an enigmatic figure in the country's contemporary history. He was a strategist and a master tactician. More importantly, he understood the opportunities handed to him by fate, more by serendipity than by conscious choice: cousin of President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. and his general, defense secretary Enrile's subordinate but co-equal during the military uprising — 1986 People Power Revolution, and eventually President Cory's savior, defense secretary and successor. Like all presidents, they all did some good. FVR's regime experienced economic growth and stability. Philippines Vision 2000 was FVR's socioeconomic program that started the country toward industrialization by the turn of the century and beyond, having gained the status of "Tiger Cub Economy in Asia"; to sit at the table of those that achieved the status of tiger economies — Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia.

Free markets and free trade were ingrained in Ramos. This was predictable of the 12th Philippine president, as he was steeped in the economic culture of America, having been trained at West Point, the bastion and cradle of America's military-industrial complex that will prove to be the boon and bane of America's hegemony.

A free marketer, FVR sought to break up monopolies. His mantra has always been to create a more level playing field, allowing smaller businesses to compete and innovate. He did well pursuing policies to liberalize and regulate the stagnant telecommunications sector where the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT) long dominated. The sale of Fort Bonifacio (Bonifacio Global City) had positive effects on urban development, boosting construction, real estate, retail and services, spurring foreign direct investments. On the other hand, the gentrification of the metropolis elicited concerns about the displacement of informal settlers and the affordability of housing to the masses.

But there were near misses, too. From the breakdowns of government-owned and -controlled companies, they inevitably ended in the hands of the oligarchy in cahoots with their allies, the political dynasties. For one, we had a thriving steel industry in Southeast Asia in the 1950s-1960s, contributing to our industrialization and supporting infrastructure development, but FVR's liberalization opening the economy to foreign competition resulted in a flood of imported steel products that were cheaper than locally produced steel leading to our mills shutting down. National Steel Corp. (NSC), one of Asia's largest, folded up. Government's temporary subsidies and protection could have helped — simply mirroring the other countries' own subsidies.

Armed Forces modernization

The modernization of the armed services — Air Force, Navy and Army — was the raison d'etre for the sale of military-owned lands. There was even a law enacted in 1995, RA 7898, the AFP Modernization Act. The 240-hectare property was then disposed of at P34,000 per square meter, touted as the local real estate deal of the century. There were questions on whether the monies were used per the intent of the law, hinting at leakages from the sale. Suspicions of corruption were pervasive. And the flurry of asset disposals and monopoly breakup during the six years of FVR's regime was fraught with anomalies, a blight to his legacy passing on to the next administration of President Joseph "Erap" Estrada.

Centennial Expo Pilipino project

Meant to showcase the progress of the country in a series of celebrations to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Philippine Independence proclaimed in 1898, the initiatives were placed under the National Centennial Commission (NCC). The site of the exhibition was built at the Clark Special Economic Zone in Pampanga. The centerpiece was the 35,000-seat amphitheater, which was to be the site for concerts, ecumenical services and political rallies costing P3.5 to P9 billion, roughly equivalent to 1.7 percent of the country's 1998 national budget.

The building of the facilities was riddled with graft and bidding irregularities. The unfinished structure for a time became a white elephant. This was later used by the subsequent administrations of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Estrada. An investigative report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) revealed the extravagance and inefficiency of the Ramos administration.

Much of the funds were believed to have been diverted to the coffers of the Lakas political party of FVR. Six high-ranking Ramos cabinet members and officials, led by chairman Salvador Laurel (former Philippine vice president) of the Centennial Commission, were charged in court for these anomalies. But it took the humiliatingly personal appearance of the president himself before the congressional committee investigation in October 1988 to help exonerate said officials of any wrongdoing. They were subsequently cleared by the Ombudsman and Sandiganbayan.

PEA-Amari scandal

This anomalous deal involved the acquisition of 158 hectares of reclaimed land on Manila Bay that was to be converted into "Freedom Islands." The deal forged in April 1995 was approved by FVR. On Nov. 29, 1996, the Public Estates Authority (PEA), a parastatal, entered into an agreement with Amari Coastal Bay Development Corp., an Italian-Thai consortium, as part of the Ramos administration's Manila Bay Master Development Plan (MBMDP). The deal involved the sale of mostly reclaimed prime government land to Amari at significantly undervalued prices. Government had been doing this with other reclaimed lands in the past administrations. But in this deal, the stench of corruption and anomalies were pervasive, suggesting this to be not only disadvantageous to the government but that certain individuals from both the private sector and government bureaucracy and many in the Lakas political party were involved, receiving kickbacks and bribes. Critics argued that the transaction lacked transparency and violated laws and regulations governing public land sales. Ramos denied accusations that the PEA-Amari deal was clinched to benefit the ruling Lakas-NUCD as alleged by opposition groups.

In a privilege speech, Sen. Ernesto Maceda exposed the deal, calling it the "grandmother of all scams," shortchanging government by at least P50 billion. By this time, several hundred million in bribes and kickbacks had already been dispensed.

An additional humanitarian issue involved the displacement of 3,000 fishing and coastal families around Manila Bay, fueling massive protests from fisherfolk in coalition with leftist activists and the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya).

In 1997, the Supreme Court declared the joint venture agreement between PEA and Amari violated the constitutional prohibition on the sale of public lands to private corporations. The court decision invalidated the deal and prevented the transfer of the land to Amari. An additional petition in 1998 by former solicitor general Francisco Chavez seeking to nullify the PEA's sale to Amari of 77.34 hectares (of still submerged areas) of the total 158 hectares sank the deal. The decision of the Supreme Court became final in 2002 after the Ramos administration ended.

President Ramos himself was not personally implicated in the corruption allegations related to these deals. But since the controversies occurred during his administration, and the questions raised about transparency were unresolved, his integrity was impugned, a blight to his otherwise gallant reputation as the stabilizing force after the Ferdinand Marcos/Cory Aquino volatility.

Published in LML Polettiques

Albay 1st district Representative Edcel Lagman has filed a measure aiming to be the enabling law for a people's initiative to effect changes in the 1987 Constitution.  

In House Bill 9868, which shall be known as the “Enabling Law on People’s Initiative to Propose Directly Amendments to the Constitution,” Lagman said only amendments and not revisions shall be allowed.

 An amendment, as defined in the proposed bill, “entails a simple or singular change, alteration or deletion of a word, phrase or provision in the Constitution which does not affect or impact on the system or form of government as well as on ideals or principles underlying the Constitution.”

 A revision, on the other hand, is defined as a “thorough or radical change in the form or system of government institutionalized in the Constitution” which shall be done through a constituent assembly or a constitutional convention.

 The bill specifies that a petition for people’s initiative to be filed with the Commission on Elections shall state what the proposed amendment is and the justifications for the proposal.

The signatures of 12% of the total number of registered voters in the country, as well as 3% of registered voters per legislative district shall be required in filing the petition.

The bill requires that the signature forms are signed by the voter in the presence of an election officer or the EO’s representative.

Anyone opposed to the petition may file an opposition with the Comelec 15 days after the petition for PI is published.

Lagman, in his explanatory note, said RA 6735 or the Initiative and Referendum Act can only be used by the people to enact or repeal a local ordinance or a national statute.

He explained that the said law “is inadequate as a compliant legislation for the effective exercise of people’s initiative to propose amendments to the Constitution.”

He cited the Santiago vs Comelec case where the Supreme Court said RA 6735 is “inadequate to cover the system of initiative on amendments under the Constitution” and that this inadequacy cannot be cured by a resolution from the Commission on Elections.

Lagman stressed that this ruling was not reversed in the succeeding case of Lambino vs Comelec.

House Bill 9868 has undergone first reading and has been referred to the Committee on Constitutional Amendments. — RSJ, GMA Integrated News

Published in News
Fourth of a series

IN the 2004 presidential elections, sample surveys showed the incumbent President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA), slightly ahead of the challenger, the charismatic actor Fernando Poe Jr. On June 5, 2004, while the vote counting was going on, a tape recording of a phone conversation with a Comelec commissioner, Virgilio Garcillano, hit the airwaves. This was the "Hello Garci" tapes, purportedly of a female (GMA) asking the commissioner to rig the elections in her favor. This gave credence to a Filipino election phenomenon of "dagdag-bawas" (addition-subtraction) of votes to favor one candidate over the other — an anomalous and criminal endeavor.

With public pressure mounting to investigate the scandal, GMA gave her famous "I'm sorry" speech on June 27 on nationwide television, admitting it was her voice but denied vehemently attempting to manipulate the election results. On July 8, 10 of her Cabinet members resigned, demanding that GMA also resign. This was the infamous "Hyatt 10" that later jumped to the camp of the next president, Noynoy Aquino, proving to be the thorn in GMA's side in the remaining years of her term.

An earlier move by members of the congressional minority to impeach GMA failed, with her majority coalition blocking this initiative. No impeachment trial took place. Many believed that she would have won the election anyway. But her attempt to rig the election marred her victory — a deadly blemish to the remaining years of her regime.

NBN-ZTE deal a telenovela

This corruption scandal is about the anomalous $329 million construction contract awarded to the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE for the proposed government national broadband network (NBN). This convoluted case ensnared the highest and most trusted people of GMA, whose roles in exposing the scam were either seemingly heroic or murky at best, advancing their own nefarious agenda around the deal. There was the tragic figure of Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos, GMA's man (and alleged bagman of the first gentleman Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo), who went to China four times to broker the deal. Senate investigations subsequently revealed that he tried to bribe NEDA Director General Romulo Neri — "Sec, may 200 ka dito" — in exchange for the NEDA imprimatur (P200 million for the NEDA secretary).

While on one of his China trips, Abalos was accompanied by Joey de Venecia 3rd, the son of House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., a political ally of GMA. The young de Venecia claimed to have heard Abalos "demand money" from ZTE officials. He implicated Mike Arroyo, the president's husband, who he said had told him to "back off" from pursuing the NBN project. Joey de Venecia was president of Amsterdam Holdings, the company that lost its bid to ZTE for the NBN project.

To complicate matters, a subplot was written into the scam with the appearance of Rodolfo "Jun" Lozada Jr., who, together with his boss at NEDA, Secretary Neri, testified before the Senate blue ribbon of bribery and kickbacks related to the deal and likewise implicating Mike Arroyo. By this time, Neri and Lozada had skipped town to avoid appearing further in the Senate inquiry. Lozada was later allegedly kidnapped by GMA's Malacañang cordon sanitaire for him to change his story. Abalos eventually resigned in ignominy, and GMA was forced to cancel the contract. And the senior de Venecia lost the speakership. 

PCSO fund scam

Among GMA's depravities was the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) fund scam, where GMA and some of her officials faced plunder cases before the Sandiganbayan for allegedly pocketing P365 million.

It was discovered that money meant for Catholic and secular charities was diverted for personal use, including cash gifts to politicians, allies and friends. One case involved the gifting of luxury vehicles, "Pajeros," to GMA's favorite Catholic bishops, not so much as religious fervor and payment for indulgences guaranteeing her acceptance to heaven but simply proving that the powerful robed hierarchy is bribable.

The Office of the Ombudsman's review resolution of the plunder complaint accused GMA and her cohorts of "raiding the public treasury by withdrawing and receiving in several instances the amount from confidential/intelligence funds (CIF) of the PCSO and unlawfully transferring or conveying the same into their possession and control through irregularly issued disbursement vouchers and fictitious expenditures... The series of acts form a pattern, not only of misuse and raid of PCSO's CIF from 2007-2010 but also of illegal conveyance of disposition of cash advances disbursed therefrom, all while taking advantage of their respective official functions. "

The aftermath

In the two plunder and related corruption and criminal cases cited above (NBN-ZTE, PCSO-CIF), GMA and her coterie were detained or exonerated in various degrees not of their culpability but in their hierarchy of status — reflecting the disparities within Philippine society. The big fish serve time but eventually get away, and the small fry are devoured by the system.

Among the perpetrators was Rosario Uriarte, the general manager of the PCSO. Uriarte was accused of diverting funds from the charity organization for personal gain. She faced plunder charges but fled the country in 2011. However, she returned in 2016 and was arrested. The Sandiganbayan acquitted her of plunder in 2018
Jocelyn "Joc-joc" Bolante, an undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture, was implicated in a related PCSO-CIF case — the fertilizer scam. He faced plunder charges but was acquitted in 2010 and released.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Neri became a state witness and was not incarcerated. Chad military leader designated as presidential candidate

Lozada, a former consultant of the NEDA, testified against high-ranking officials involved in the controversial deal. He was not incarcerated.

Abalos faced charges of bribery and corruption but was eventually acquitted in 2012. He was not incarcerated and was freed after the trial.

Mike Arroyo, the president's husband, was the influential Svengali, considering his proximity to the power center. He never held any public office, but his spectral presence was felt and permeated these gigantic government projects. While he was not incarcerated, he faced allegations of involvement in shady deals during his wife's presidency. He was not charged and remained free. 

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was President Joseph "Erap" Estrada's vice president and assumed his remaining three unserved years with his controversial forced resignation after his aborted impeachment trial. GMA's own term gave her an additional six years.

Upon his assumption to the presidency, President Noynoy Aquino doggedly pursued his predecessor for her alleged crime of electoral fraud and corruption precipitated by the "Hello Garci" episode in 2004, rigging the senatorial elections in 2007 and the PSCO corruption cases. She was arrested on Nov.18, 2011, but spent most of her detention period under hospital arrest due to her health condition. After almost five years of hospital detention, the Supreme Court acquitted her of the charges in July 2016 due to lack of evidence.

While in detention, she was elected as representative of a Pampanga district. She was a powerful legislator, completing three consecutive terms in 2019 and even becoming speaker of the House of Representatives.

She continues to be influential in government, successfully transitioning from being at one time a disgraced incarcerated former president whose acquittal from all her cases may have contributed to her rehabilitation in the public eye.

Hello Garci! Sic transit Gloria!
Published in LML Polettiques

MANILA, Philippines — Ayuda for your signature.

Residents testified at a Senate hearing in Davao City yesterday that they were made to sign people’s initiative (PI) signature sheets with the promise that they would be given ayuda or financial assistance, food packages and other benefits.

The continuing probe by the Senate committee on electoral reform and people’s participation chaired by Sen. Imee Marcos has focused on the residents and critics of the latest Charter change push, speaking of bribery and of money clandestinely changing hands during the signature drive.

Former president Rodrigo Duterte, who has openly opposed the latest Cha-cha push, was on the guest list but did not show up at the hearing.

The Senate hearing, which lasted for almost four hours, was attended by Senators Bong Go and Ronald dela Rosa, both from Davao, and several local government officials and residents.

A barangay captain presented to the committee several documents in a green folder containing a list of residents who wanted to withdraw their signatures from the PI. “My personnel in the barangay were also considered victims. They were offered P4,000 just to gather signatures,” he said.

An official of the Commission on Elections said the signatures of residents who would like to withdraw would not be used by the Comelec.

Richell Siguera, a barangay coordinator, showed to the panel a piece of paper which she received from those who secured her signature. The paper contained a stub of AICS or Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations.

“A certain Yap gave it to her and that Yap is reporting to Cong. Migz Nograles,” Siguera added.

She said she also solicited signatures from her neighbors.

She admitted that she did not explain the PI to her neighbors as she herself has limited knowledge about it.

“They told us to keep the coupon and wait for the money. They have yet to receive any amount yet,” Siguera added.

When Dela Rosa asked the residents if they would have signed the signature forms without being assured of coupon, they replied “no sir.”

At the hearing, the senators also warned the People’s Initiative for Modernization and Reform Action (PIRMA) to submit its list of donors of the P55 million spent for television advertisements promoting PI.

Marcos said PIRMA led by its convenor Noel Oñate should submit the list required by Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III.

“I have a stern warning for PIRMA, the legal counsel are here, you need to advise your client about the donations lists that constitute until today, three days after the fact, donors list, BIR receipt or whatever documents. Nothing has been submitted so far. Submit it at the earliest possible opportunities,” Marcos said before suspending the public hearing.

Marcos said many people wanted to participate in the hearing but there was limited time.

She encouraged barangay officials to submit more evidence to prove cases of bribery and misuse of government funds.

During the previous hearing, Sen. Francis Escudero asked Oñate about the cost of the printing of the PI forms but he claimed he was not familiar with it.

“What I know is the figure in the airing of the advertisement which cost P55 million, ABS-CBN, TV5 and GMA7.”

No shift to parliament

House Majority Leader Mannix Dalipe has again assured Senate counterparts and the public that Resolution of Both Houses No. 6 on Cha-cha would not lead to a shift to a parliamentary form of government.

Dalipe said there is no truth to the claims of Duterte that Cha-cha would also change the country’s political landscape.

“With regards to suspicion that we are trying to do this to have somebody become a PM (prime minister) or something, records will prove (otherwise),” noted the representative of Zamboanga City.

The lawmaker added that what any doubting individual could do is to check the RBH 6 documents that the House of Representatives had submitted to the Senate.

“So I don’t know where it came from – the allegation that changes will be political. It is clear that what we transmitted is for (amendment of) economic provisions,” he maintained. Dalipe also challenged those making such accusation to show evidence.

According to Duterte, once the parliamentary form of government is established, Speaker Martin Romuldez would be installed as the prime minister and he would be succeeded by presidential son Ilocos Norte Rep. Sandro Marcos.

Deputy Speaker and Quezon Rep. David Suarez said what they see is the “narrative against development and progress is consistent.”

“They always want to put political color to the constitutional amendment that we are proposing, when in fact what is on the table are purely economic amendments,” Suarez added.

He cited as basis some senators’ claims the House is bent on abolishing the Senate, when this is just a “figment of their imagination.”

Suarez said this is “nowhere to be found in RBH No. 6.”

“These were the same arguments they have always raised, like they will be abolished and all. Another is the insinuation that we will perpetuate ourselves in power, it’s really the same narrative thrown against the proposal to push for Charter amendments,” he added.  

Suarez also said the Senate’s probe has turned into a “witch hunt.”

“After two hearings, no witnesses have come forward to say that they received money or were bribed to sign the petition calling for Charter amendments,” he added.

Suarez maintained it is a “shame that the probe continues despite having no witness who testified that they were paid” in exchange for their signatures.

The Quezon lawmaker earlier asked the Senate to just “refocus their attention” on the discussion and expedite approval of the Resolution of Both Houses 6 which is aimed at amending the restrictive economic provisions in the Constitution.

He underscored the need to focus on “more pressing issues facing the nation.”

According to Suarez, the “substance and direction” of the inquiry is questionable since there is no witness to confirm the allegation, even in the investigation being done in Davao City where the signature buying was reportedly rampant.

He also raised concerns over the resources and time being spent on the probe.

“While it is crucial to investigate any allegations of misconduct, especially those that could affect constitutional processes, the consistent lack of corroborative testimonies suggests that this investigation may not be the best use of our legislative body’s time and resources,” he added.    

Perilous, dangerous

Meanwhile, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution described as “perilous and dangerous” the ongoing push for Charter change initiated by the House of Representatives, while a former chief justice maintained there is absolutely no need for one.

Former Commission on Elections commissioner Rene Sarmiento, a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, and retired chief justice Hilario Davide Jr. submitted their separate position papers on the PI to Marcos’ committee.

Sarmiento said “constitutions, though imperfect, are fragile democratic instruments that must be protected and safeguarded with vigilance at all times.”

“With numerous challenges facing the country today, internationally and domestically, what is needed at this time is for us and for our elected public officers to take heed the advice of Claro M. Recto when he wrote that the ‘best amendment of the Constitution would be the amendment of our lives, the amendment of our attitudes, outlook and actions, the realization that we are free men and the resolution to live and act as free men,’” he said.

“Yes, attitudes, outlook and attributes that uphold the principle that ‘public office is a public trust,’ that affirm social justice and human rights, that seek to promote the common good of Filipinos,” he noted.

Davide, for his part, reiterated his “stand, repeated many times in the past whenever there were attempts to amend or revise the 1987 Constitution, that there is no need to do so and there are no compelling reasons for that.”

“As one of the commissioners of the 1986 Constitutional Commission who drafted this Constitution, I know it very well, and in explaining my affirmative vote for the final draft of the Constitution at the plenary session of the Commission, I openly declared that this is the Constitution I am willing to die for,” Davide added.

“Verily, the people’s initiative to amend the fundamental law of the land – the 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines – is a sacred sovereign power which should be exercised with absolute good faith. It should never be tainted with or stained by any vice, defect, trickery, deceit, misrepresentations, wickedness and corruption of any kind,” he said.

The University of the Philippines community and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines have also voiced their opposition to Charter change. — Sheila Crisostomo, Diana Lhyd Suelto, Ghio Ong, Elizabeth Marcelo

Published in News

Third of a series

THE third part of this series focuses on President Rodrigo Duterte. The controversial human rights violations resulting from Duterte's war against illegal drugs, which killed thousands, both innocent and guilty, is one of the greatest blights on his legacy defining his presidency. Recently, this caught America's reading public with the publication of a book by Patricia Evangelista, a young, feisty Filipino journalist and now best-selling author. Her "Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in My Country" (Penguin, Random House) landed on the New York Times' 10 Best Books of 2023. The Atlantic Monthly describes it as a "...riveting book... an extraordinary testament to half a decade of state-sanctioned terror."

This column will stick to the main theme of this series, profiles of corruption post-Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. Offhand, this is a cursory study of the evils of well-publicized scandals that have been relegated to the backburner. Our intent is for the current president Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. to revive the investigations of these corruption cases. Having gone full circle from his father's martial law regime to his more open and democratic administration, my thesis is if he could resolve these scandals and bring the perpetrators to justice for the remaining years of his presidency — even for this alone — he could still be a good president, nay, a great one! And perhaps in the process, he could rehabilitate his father's image — or at least mitigate the nadir of governance in the annals of Philippine history.

Pharmally, Covid-19 and PS-DBM-DoH

Among the many blights of the Duterte regime, this is perhaps the most shameful. For the simple reason, as I wrote back then: "All these occurring during the country's highest regime of pain and trauma, the continued harvest of dead souls through mismanagement of the pandemic and its resultant economic devastation. The repercussions are wide and long-term, and the aftermath is grim. The leadership of today's branches of government will be answerable to the generations to come."

Excerpts from my past columns: "...when Covid-19 struck in early 2020, government rushed in to introduce grandiose-sounding laws — the Bayanihan to Heal As One (and Two) — by granting the president emergency powers. These laws were altogether an appropriate and worthy response. But as always, the devil is in the details. It allowed the primary tools for corruption: negotiated bids on contrived tender failures and sleight-of-hand funds transfers — with leakages somewhere in between; employing obscure patsies 'backed by the powerful.'"

The Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations (blue ribbon committee) performed its mandate, and the chairman, Sen. Richard Gordon, up for reelection and who previously ran for president and lost, saw the opportunity to build up his political stock. As is the wont of numerous Senate blue ribbon committee hearings — in aid of legislation — Gordon and his cohorts used the investigation as a platform to grandstand the discovery of facts for later litigation, secondary. An afterthought!

Blue ribbon findings

What was established by the blue ribbon was that the scam was perpetrated in the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), with the culpable bureaucracy appallingly exploiting a world crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. The details have by now been digested by the public that the Department of Health (DoH), with the acquiescence of Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd, illegally transferred P42 billion of its funds to the procurement service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) to outsource the bidding and purchase of PPE and other related, pandemic supplies; that the PS-DBM bought overpriced surgical masks from various suppliers but favoring the under-capitalized (P625,000 paid-up) Chinese subsidiary Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. (Pharmally) with a zero track record, but topping more than P8.7 billion in government contracts.

The paper trail led to financial transactions and bureaucratic slippages that indicated the Chinese perpetrators, along with their local business partners and government officials, may also have been conduits of drug money laundered through these operations. Heading this cabal was Duterte's "economic adviser" Michael Yang, a shadowy mainland Chinese figure, Pharmally's financier and guarantor, linked to illegal drugs, known by his many labels — consultant, facilitator, bagman, pagador, or locally, bugaw (pimp), depending on the package offered and bought. The stink has diffused to high heavens and even the presidency and will not dissipate on Duterte's simple denial of innocence, contrived anger and say-so, demanding that he be taken on faith.

In August 2019, Christopher Lao, an obscure lawyer but well connected to the Davao mafia in Malacañang, was appointed undersecretary at the DBM and headed the PS-DBM. As soon as he settled down, he began executing these anomalous transactions. This patsy was at the center of this maelstrom.

Investigations postscript

Despite the overwhelming evidence presented at the blue ribbon, Senator Gordon was unable to elevate his report to the Senate plenary, as it lacked the requisite number of signatures from the senators. According to Gordon, the senators refused to sign the report because it included a recommendation for the filing of charges against President Duterte. The president's Senate allies came to his defense. The report died at the committee level.

In August 2023, Rappler revisited and published a postscript of the biggest corruption scandal of President Duterte now that the pandemic for which this corruption gestated has dissipated and the lockdowns imposed by the president are now just a not-so-distant memory.

First, President Duterte has remained untouched by this mess, as has his longtime aide and now Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go, who was earlier linked to the Pharmally scandal through the DBM undersecretary, Christopher Lao, allegedly his stooge (Go denied this vehemently). No cases were filed against Secretary Duque, and he quietly returned to the private sector teaching at the family-owned Lyceum-Northwestern University in Dagupan City. Michael Yang, Duterte's erstwhile "economic adviser," is now back in China. The biggest fishes got away! Sen. Raffy Tulfo, in October 2022, named Yang as allegedly being among the smugglers of agriculture products into the country, adding the appellation "kingpin" of vegetable smuggling, with operations all over the Philippines.

Rogues' gallery

The Ombudsman's special panel of investigators had recommended the filing of three counts of graft against Christopher Lao. He resigned from PS-DBM in 2020; he was required to pay a slap-on-the-wrist fine equivalent to a year's salary. His alleged accomplice, Warren Rex Liong, group procurement director of PS-DBM, was ironically awarded an appointment as overall deputy ombudsman, which could open him to charges of a conflict of interest. In March 2023, the Ombudsman ordered Liong's preventive suspension along with Paul Jasper de Guzman, the PS-DBM procurement manager.

Among the Pharmally directors and executives were Huang Tzu Yen, chairman, and Zhang Bingquiang, all wanted in Taiwan for financial crimes. The Pharmally cabal completes the Chinese connection; siblings Twinkle and Mohit Dargani, Pharmally president and corporate secretary/treasurer, respectively, and Linconn Ong spent time in detention either at the Senate or in the Pasay City Jail. They were released when the Senate session was adjourned.

The cases of these perpetrators, the small fishes are languishing in the labyrinth of the Philippine justice system. And the big fishes? Waiting for the time that Blind Lady Justice gets Alzheimer's.

Published in LML Polettiques