As he delivers his fourth State of the Nation Address (Sona) on Monday, President Aquino’s “daang matuwid” (straight path) policy against corruption is under close scrutiny in the wake of allegations that transportation officials tried to extort $30 million (about P1.3 billion) from a Czech train supplier and that bogus NGOs funneled P10 billion in pork barrel into ghost projects.
Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello said appointees of Aquino had been accused by a European ambassador of the extortion attempt for the capacity expansion and modernization of MRT 3, the commuter train system along Edsa that is suffering from passenger congestion due to a limited supply of coaches.
“The DOTC (Department of Transportation and Communications) controversy is the most serious since the people accused by the Czech ambassador are appointees of the administration and not insignificant ones. We don’t want to end up with a pure President surrounded by dirt and slime,” Bello, an ally of the President, said in a text message.
Josef Rychtar, Czech ambassador to the Philippines, has accused DOTC officials, led by MRT General Manager Al Vitangcol, of demanding $30 million from Inekon. The Czech company was reportedly blacklisted after rejecting the bribe demand.
The ambassador said the extortion attempt was made when Manuel Roxas II, now interior secretary, was the DOTC head. His handpicked officials in the department have been retained by his replacement, Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya. Both Roxas and Abaya are high-ranking officials of the ruling Liberal Party.
Abaya announced on Friday that his office was investigating the matter and that Inekon had not been blacklisted.
Before news of the $30-million extortion attempt broke out, a bigger scandal came to light.
The Inquirer reported Janet Lim-Napoles’ alleged P10-billion pork barrel racket over the past 10 years involving five senators, 23 members of the House of Representatives and more than a dozen fake NGOs, and ghost projects.
Clamor for abolition
ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio said that for the first time in the past three years, the clamor for the abolition of the pork barrel had reached a crescendo that even the President could not ignore.
“(T)he P10-billion pork barrel scam is the ultimate test case for daang matuwid as an anticorruption campaign. Will P-Noy ensure a thorough investigation that spares no one, or will this be an exercise in scapegoating, damage control and selective demolition of political opponents?” Tinio said in a text message to the Inquirer.
The party-list lawmaker said the abolition of the pork barrel, formally known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), would be the lasting legacy of daang matuwid. “Otherwise, it will just be another anticorruption showcase that ultimately leaves institutionalized corruption and patronage intact,” Tinio said.
Each senator is allotted P200 million and a member of the House P70 million in PDAF yearly for their pet projects.
Tinio said Aquino’s initial reaction to calls for the abolition of PDAF had “exposed the limits” of his anticorruption campaign which he kicked off to a rousing applause when he took office in July 2010.
“Evidently, he’s unwilling to go as far as dismantling the system of patronage politics at the root of corruption in government. No wonder, since the Aquino administration has shown that it is no less adept at manipulating government resources, including PDAF and the CCT (conditional cash transfer), for expanding the Liberal Party base,” Tinio said.
Bello said a conviction of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who has languished in detention but has succeeded in parrying legal efforts to jail her, was not enough.
“I think the administration is determined to convict GMA, but the judicial system is what is holding things up. But the pork barrel scam shows you have to really push deeper into the system to root out corruption and not be satisfied with just getting people at the top like GMA,” the Akbayan lawmaker said.
The President’s other allies downplayed the slew of news involving corruption in the past few weeks.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said the daang matuwid mantra he helped craft for the presidential campaign in 2010 had not lost its appeal.
“There is a lot of noise out there but the trust and approval ratings of P-Noy and his administration remain in the very high category. Watch out for the latest SWS (Social Weather Stations) ratings. Our people are discerning enough to sift through all this confusing jumble of allegations,” Abad said.
He said daang matuwid was fundamental to all the social, economic and political reforms that the administration was pursuing.
Abad noted that the corruption charges against DOTC officials were “allegations that still need to be investigated.”
Sen. Sergio R. Osmeña III said daang matuwid was more relevant than ever.
“In the past administration, the scams like Napoles, MWSS, DBP loans and Senate budget would never have come to light. The whistle-blowers would have been too scared because they know that a cover-up would [be the end result]. Under P-Noy, people have been emboldened to expose wrongdoings,” Osmeña said.
Sen. Francis Escudero said the President “has remained true and steadfast with his campaign. Simply put, our battle versus graft and corruption is not a simple one and cannot be totally erased overnight. It’s a work in progress and P-Noy is the best chance we have in gaining headway and achieving this elusive dream.”
Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara said the President’s anticorruption campaign had already taken root in health, social services and education, “as shown by the greater funds available and devoted to the people and which they can see and feel.”
Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III said the President was sticking to his vision. “I still think the person or the President still walks the path.”
The President’s speech is ready, but the lawmakers who will be hearing his message in the flesh have their own great expectations on what he will tackle when he faces the country Monday.
Allies and critics alike want to hear him to continue to discuss corruption, which has always been a theme in many of his speeches.
In the Sona, the President lists his accomplishments, lays down his plans for the next year, and points to the direction he wants the administration to take.
Bello said he hoped Aquino would talk about the “continuing corruption in the middle and lower levels of government.”
He also expressed hope that Aquino would discuss the alleged sexual exploitation of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the hands of embassy and labor officials to ensure that something would be done about it and to show that the problems of the workers abroad were in his sights. Bello was the one who made the allegations public.
He said he would like to hear the President tackle ways to narrow the rich-poor gap and the failure to make economic progress trickle down to the grassroots.
Gabriela Rep. Luz Ilagan said the President should admit that after three years, his anticorruption campaign was no different from the path treaded by his predecessor. He should also take to task his officials involved in unscrupulous activities.
She also wanted him to say that he would put a stop to all Charter change initiatives, rethink the privatization of public utilities and basic services, and ensure proper housing for the poor.
Ilagan said she would also like to hear the President say that he would go after Jovito Palparan, the retired military official implicated in the disappearance of activists, and that he would push for lower water and electricity rates.
Another ally, Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat, believed that the President would push for a new mining bill that would raise tax revenues from mining firms.
For more updates on President Benigno Aquino III’s last State of the Nation Address, visit INQUIRER.net’s special Sona 2015 site.