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Philippine Politicians Vow to Battle Campaign Corruption - 2004-03-12


With the Philippine election campaign in full swing and less than two months before voters go to the polls, the perennial problem of corruption has come to the forefront.

All five candidates vying for the presidency vow to wipe out the culture of corruption that many say pervades the nation.

But most analysts think the promises last as long as the campaign posters that litter the streets a day after the voting is over.

Randy David, a political analyst and professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines, says this is because the elections contribute significantly to corruption.

"Campaigns are totally funded from private funds," he said. "The fact that you have very, very expensive elections compels people who are running for public office to incur enormous debts to political patrons, who would then after the elections - assuming their candidate gets elected - be collecting on those favors."

All candidates are required to provide a detailed list of campaign contributions and expenditures to the Commission on Elections, but Mr. David says none of the figures are verifiable.

Mr. David conducted a campaign financing study during the 1992 presidential election. He called the data "incredible" because the candidates reported extremely small amounts of campaign contributions.

He says the study showed a presidential candidate needs between $35 million and $75 million to run a campaign, while a senator needs $4 million and a congressional candidate around $1 million. Even a candidate for town mayor must have $250,000 to run for election.

Keeping in mind that the president earns about $1,200 a month, and mayors are paid $650 a month, Mr. David says it is little wonder corruption exists.

He says the heart of corruption lies in the fact that there is little control on how legislators allocate public funds for their districts.

Political observers say very often the money benefits campaign supporters and the politicians themselves, or their families and friends.

Simeon Marcel, head of the Ombudsman's Office, the government's anti-corruption agency, says corrupt government offices are another problem for the Philippines.

He says because of a lack of resources and funds his agency focuses on the three agencies that are perceived to be the most corrupt - the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the Bureau of Customs.

"Apart from the fact they are reputedly the most corrupt, that is also strategic," he said. "Hopefully we can clean the Bureau of Customs, BIR, then the government can have more revenues and hopefully part of that additional revenue will go to the Office of Ombudsman so that we can have more resources to fight graft and corruption."

Mr. Marcel says there is no social stigma attached to corruption charges. And until leading politicians are prosecuted and jailed, corruption will continue unabated.

"The main reason for corruption really is that the big fish does not get caught, they have not been prosecuted," said Simeon Marcel. "The lesson is that if you steal money, you steal big, so that you have enough money to pay the top lawyers, and you can have enough money to buy connections so that you can get off."

Guillermo Luz, of the Makati Business Club, which fights corruption, says that red tape at government offices adds to the problem. He also says too many people are involved in the bureaucratic process, which lacks transparency.

"It is difficult for people to be able to transact business efficiently," he said. "So long as regulatory framework and process are left complicated, if they are not simplified, then people will come across and pay the bribe and engage in graft and corruption."

Mr. Luz points out that corruption has been reduced when procedures have been streamlined and made more transparent, such as in the process for getting a driver's license or renewing a passport.

All three men agree campaign finance reform would go a long way in curbing corruption in the Philippines. But few people in the country think the next president will have the political strength to stand up to the business interests and campaign contributors to end the cycle of patronage politics.