MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino is fighting for his political career in the face of several impeachment complaints and approval ratings that have dipped to their lowest levels since he took office four years ago. The controversy is over a government spending program, parts of which the high court struck down this month.
Protesters voice complaints
Hundreds of protesters bearing colorful signs and banners snake their way toward the outer roads of the Congressional building. They air their gripes, as they do each year before the president gives a national address at the start of the Congressional session.
But this year, New Patriotic Alliance party Secretary General Renato Reyes said there is an impeachment complaint to back their displeasure.
“It’s really about holding the president accountable and having a platform to explain the issues to the people. So we’re trying to explain to the people how funds are being used, why discretionary spending is really wrong, why the items in the DAP are not really beneficial to the people,” he said.
Controversial stimulus plan
The Aquino administration created the “DAP” or Disbursement Acceleration Program in 2011. The idea was to fast-track public projects with money from other agencies that went unspent.
But early this month, the Supreme Court ruled portions of the program unconstitutional. It said it was unconstitutional to take money out of budgets before the fiscal year ended, transfer it to branches of government beyond the office of the executive and fund projects that were not covered by the general spending plan.
Reyes and other critics call it the president’s “personal pork barrel fund” (government funds that politicians used for local projects). They equate pork barrel spending with funds that are hard to account for and vulnerable to corruption.
The administration’s budget team, flanked by most of the president’s cabinet secretaries, went before a Senate Finance Committee, which held a hearing on the DAP last week.
In a mixture of Filipino and English, Committee Chairman Francis Escudero questioned DAP’s status outside of general appropriations. “It’s difficult on the part of Congress to be proposed projects, only to find out belatedly, halfway through the year, they won’t be implemented and then the funds are transferred to other projects that Congress does not even know about,” he said.
Budget Secretary Florecio Abad defended the program, saying it was funded through savings that resulted in cutting practices vulnerable to corruption. Abad said it brought a “dramatic improvement” to economic growth.
During his national address Monday, Aquino cited examples of how the quick funding helped the school system and disaster response efforts among numerous other initiatives.
“I know that those of you in this hall are one with me in believing that we must not deprive our countrymen of benefits, and that these should reach them in the soonest possible time. This is why: We are proposing the passage of a supplemental budget for 2014, so that the implementation of our programs and projects need not be compromised,” Aquino stated.
The administration stopped the use of DAP and submitted a motion for reconsideration to the Supreme Court. Petitioners have been asked to respond.
Presidential approval ratings down
Ramon Casiple heads the Philippine Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. He said the president is not vulnerable to the impeachment calls because the complainants “simply do not have the votes” in Congress.
But Casiple pointed out Aquino’s ratings in two major surveys, place him at 55-percent approval, are significantly lower than the 60 and 70 percent he consistently enjoyed as recently as this year. He said Aquino is insisting on the DAP.
“He wants to make the Supreme Court accepts that what he did was right and the problem, of course, is that you’re talking to a referee. The Supreme Court is not the protagonist here," he noted. "The irony, of course, is that Congress, which is the one holding the purse of the nation, is not complaining.”
Casiple said Congress partially benefited from DAP spending.
He said instead of defending the program, Aquino should focus on ridding his administration of certain incompetent officials and solidifying his anti-corruption legacy in these last two years of his term.