Sona 2014: A shaken regime

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All the previous issues that faced the Aquino presidency are like relentless jabs pounding its body, and the pork barrel and DAP are like powerful blows straight to the head of the regime. (Photo from here)

Since his first State of the Nation Address (Sona) in 2010, President Aquino has seen the steady erosion of his legitimacy as the empty presidential slogans of “daang matuwid” and “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” fall apart. Today, in his fifth Sona, Aquino is facing the worst political crisis of his regime amid the raging pork barrel and Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) controversies.

From the onset, Aquino’s presidency has been questioned for the powerful interests it represents as symbolized by Hacienda Luisita. His trumpeting of public-private partnership (PPP) in his first Sona signaled the perpetuation of pro-business and long discredited neoliberal economic polices. Barely two months in office, his leadership, or lack of it, was widely criticized with the Luneta Hostage crisis. When prices spiraled, “Noynoying” captured the indifference of the regime to the plight of ordinary people. The rapid growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and massively increased cash transfers could not camouflage the deteriorating poverty and job scarcity, made even more pronounced by the scandalous rise in wealth of the oligarchs. (Read: Prices, profits and poverty; Poverty trends) His criminal neglect of Pablo and Yolanda victims brought extra momentum to the public discontent that has been gathering force.

Then, the pork barrel and DAP scam exploded, shaking the Aquino administration in a way it has never felt before. If this were boxing, all the previous issues that faced the Aquino presidency are like relentless jabs pounding its body; and the pork barrel and DAP are like powerful blows straight to the head of the regime. It is obviously shaken. Aquino’s appeal to “tie a yellow ribbon” to show support to his administration illustrates how insecure and uncertain the administration has become. If this appeal were Aquino’s “counterpunch”, it merely exposed him to more blows as the Palace was forced to downplay the yellow ribbon call after an overwhelming public rejection.

Aquino and his Liberal Party (LP) hoped that the pork barrel scam would weaken the opposition for 2016. But the controversy quickly developed in a manner that Malacañang’s political operators did not foresee. It is no longer just about Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla, and Janet Lim Napoles and her bogus non-government organizations (NGOs). It has become more about the rotten system of patronage politics and bureaucrat capitalism with Aquino and his clique currently at the helm. Palace’s efforts to cover up the accountability of the President, his Budget Secretary Butch Abad, and other LP stalwarts and their allies are generating public anger as intense as the indignation against Enrile and company. In the eyes of the public, they are all the same trapos (traditional politicians) who abused the powers entrusted to them for selfish and narrow private gains. They must be all held to account, the President included.

The satisfaction and approval ratings of the Aquino presidency are dipping to their all-time lows and there are no signs of recovery. In the coming months, the neoliberal offensive against the people is sure to intensify with ever-rising costs of basic goods and services and economic displacement. After the Sona, for instance, we are anticipating a huge increase in LRT 1 fares related to its impending takeover by the Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP)-Ayala group (Read: How MVP-Ayala will squeeze LRT 1 consumers dry) followed by a massive retrenchment of Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) employees. (Read: How Aquino betrayed public interest in LRT 1 privatization) The long-delayed upward adjustment in LRT 2 and MRT 3 fares may also be implemented along with the LRT 1 fare increase, if not in the weeks or months after. Also after Sona, the results of the ongoing arbitration between the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) and its private concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water are expected to come out, with a big-time hike in water rates a possibility. (Read: Water arbitration: Issues and implications) Then there’s the threat of El Niño, which experts say would be felt starting in the second half of the year with devastating impacts on the agricultural sector (and consequently, further increases in food prices) and on the livelihood of millions of farmers in the countryside. (Read: Bracing for El Niño) All these would aggravate the precarious state of the regime.

Meanwhile, on top of these brewing economic issues, Aquino himself is creating favorable conditions for persistent, growing and broadening protests against his regime and the rotten system of governance in the country. His display of excessive self-confidence and arrogance in successive speeches to defend DAP against the Supreme Court decision and pervasive anti-DAP public sentiment has further fuelled the likelihood in the coming months of mass mobilizations similar, if not bigger than, last year’s Million People March.

As the primary contradiction between the Aquino regime and the people further sharpens, so is the contradiction among the various cliques of the political elite for control of state power and resources. The filing of cases in relation to the pork barrel scam against LP’s perceived strong rivals in 2016 is just the start of electoral bickering among the trapos.

Already, the LP has initiated efforts to remove Vice President Jejomar Binay from the Aquino Cabinet, hoping to weaken his public profile as well as access to state resources that can be used to support his expected presidential bid. Plunder cases have been recently filed at the Ombudsman against the Vice President and his son Makati Mayor Junjun Binay, while daughter Makati Rep. Nancy Binay is facing allegations of anomalous pork barrel transactions involving an NGO founded by the Vice President.

The bickering among the trapos will surely intensify and escalate into full-blown maneuverings as 2016 draws near, and even earlier especially now that the impeachment against Aquino has already been endorsed in the House of Representatives. Palace propaganda operators, for instance, are trying to discredit the impeachment by charging it as a pro-Binay campaign, simply because of presidential succession. However, the blatant and arrogant way that Aquino has been covering up his and his clique’s accountability in the pork barrel and DAP scam is too glaring for people to doubt the intentions of the impeachment.

Another political flashpoint is the dynamics between Malacañang and the Supreme Court, which could develop into a full-scale confrontation between supposedly co-equal branches of government. Aquino’s veiled threat of impeaching the Justices would put the raging controversy into a higher level of contradiction between and within government’s institutions. Already, LP leaders at the House led by its Speaker Sonny Belmonte and its justice committee chair Niel Tupaz Jr. have called for a probe on the alleged SC’s own pork barrel – the Judiciary Development Fund (JDF).

Furthermore, the handling by LP and its allies of the impeachment process in Congress against the President will determine how fast and how intense the political crisis will escalate. The Aquino administration firmly controls the lower house and, like the Arroyo regime, will surely use all its influence and resources – including massive presidential discretionary funds – to dictate the outcome of the impeachment. Aquino apologists in Congress like Rep. Walden Bello of Akbayan, one of the biggest beneficiaries of presidential patronage and largesse, are already dismissing the grounds for the presidential impeachment as “flimsy” even before the process of determining its substance could begin. But for the people, all these only highlight how rotten the prevailing political system is and how hopeless reforms are within a decaying system dominated by narrow and self-serving interests.

We must emphasize that the Supreme Court decided against the pork barrel and DAP not because they are made up of upright Justices who are willing to challenge the country’s most powerful man (the decision, in fact, gives Malacañang wiggle room to evade criminal liability), but because amid the snowballing public condemnation against the corrupt and capricious use of state resources, upholding the patently unconstitutional and illegal DAP would only further fuel social unrest. Thus, while LP and its allies may blatantly derail Aquino’s impeachment, they will do so at the risk of triggering more public outrage and aggravating political instability.

The regime is shaken. The situation may or may not eventually lead to a dramatic outcome like Aquino’s ouster or resignation but the way people are rising up, challenging the status quo and asserting their democratic rights certainly gives us optimism that ultimately, the people will triumph.

It is not only about the pork barrel and DAP. Look, for instance, at how Yolanda and Pablo victims are gradually recovering through community actions and initiatives to ensure their livelihood and social services that government could not provide; or how the farmers and farmworkers have persistently pushed for, and in some areas even actually implemented, genuine land reform despite landlord repression and state terrorism; or how many Filipinos continue to join or support the 45-year old civil war in the countryside in the belief that it is the only way to end oppression.

Indeed, there is hope as long as the people are ready to struggle for what is truly democratic and just. ###

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