Evasive candidates

Evasive candidates
By Juan Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer

“Our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves,” T.S. Eliot once pointed out. Look at how our candidates duck and weave.

Candidate Joseph Estrada reworks his para sa mahirap spiel for a return to Malacañang. “They stole my throne,” Erap moaned. He never learned, from downfall and detention, that the president is a servant, not a sovereign. He glosses over his conviction for plunder.

Candidate Manuel Villar shunts aside the C-5 road budgetary scams. “Partisan politics,” he mutters. Are his zippered-lips on Malacañang scams a swap? For covert Palace support, will he provide an “Erap-style bailout” for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when she loses her presidential immunity? Villar waves that question away.

Candidate Gilbert Teodoro shrugs off queries on “Villarroyo.” Is he being led willy-nilly to the slaughterhouse? He’s not a naive waif, Gibo backers stress. He’d do without strident Malacañang endorsements, thank you. They are a “kiss of death,” the surveys say.

Candidate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo rarely appears in public with the First Gentleman. Not even in Pampanga, where she’s running for Congress. Out of sight, out of mind? The Palace, meanwhile, churns out ads on her “legacy of achievements.”

Their claims don’t ensure credibility of those ads. That’s also set by what they evade.

There’s one “achievement,” for instance, that’s been shoved under the rug so far: President Arroyo created more local government units (LGUs) than Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Estrada combined.

Ramos stepped down in 1998. He oversaw then 78 provinces, 84 cities, 1,540 towns and almost 42,000 barangays. People Power booted out Estrada in 2001. The number of provinces remained constant. Towns decreased to 1,513. So did barangays, to 41,943.

Under Ms Arroyo, LGUs “multiplied like amoeba.” From January 2001 to December 2006, she added three provinces, 22 cities, 17 towns and 52 barangays

So why do these LGUs get the “First Gentleman treatment”—out of sight, out of mind?

“Under President Arroyo’s watch, [these LGUs] were created or converted shortly before election periods,” former Finance Undersecretary Milwida Guevarra points out in “The Fiscal Decentralization Process in the Philippines: Lessons from Experience.”

Before the 2001 senatorial and local campaign started, 14 towns were elevated to city status. Zamboanga Sibugay was carved out of Zamboanga del Sur Province.

Except for a solitary town, all new LGUs in 2004 were created before the presidential elections: two cities, two municipalities and 16 barangays.

Three months before the 2007 national campaign started, Shariff Kabunsuan was sliced off from Maguindanao. Dinagat Island was also spun off from Surigao del Norte, but the Supreme Court knocked it back into being a town, since it doesn’t have the requisite population.

That same year, 18 towns were converted into cities. Also created were 15 towns, 52 barangays and four cities.

The new LGUs are concentrated in Mindanao, mostly in Maguindanao province. “At least eight municipalities and 12 barangays were created in the said province under the Arroyo presidency,” the Guevarra study notes. They accommodated members of Gov. Andal Ampatuan’s clan. In return, the Ampatuans handed Ms Arroyo 193,938 votes over Fernando Poe’s 59,892. They also delivered a 12-0 shut out for the administration’s senatorial slate.

There were 57 persons massacred last Nov. 23 in Ampatuan town. Among the victims, 32 were journalists. (The body of Midland Review’s Reynaldo Momay is still missing.)

Thus, the number of media workers killed in the line of duty since 1986 bolted from 82 to 113, according to the Center for Media Freedom. The Philippines overtook Iraq as the “most dangerous country in the world for journalists.”

Among those charged for the slaughter are Andal Ampatuan Jr., Datu Zaldy “Puti” Ampatuan, Datu Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan Sr., Datu Norodin Ampatuan, Datu Jimmy Ampatuan, plus 190 others. They are the President’s closest allies.

Political influence is also about money. At local government level, this swirls around Internal Revenue Allotments. The size of IRAs pivots around population head counts.

Census returns in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao are overstated, demographers have cautioned. In Maguindanao, there were more 18-year-olds than in any other age bracket, the Philippine Center for Journalism reports.

Except for the ARMM, all regions reported declines in population. Thus, IRAs for ARMM provinces soared from P6.8 billion to P8.7 billion.

There’s little public accounting. “Warlords” treat IRAs as their personal checkbooks, North Cotabato Vice Gov. Manny Piñol noted. The Commission on Audit has yet to report on Maguindanao’s IRA splurges.

The “scent of cash” also drove the number of cities from 60 in 1991 to 136 by 2009. Few perform as “engines of growth.” Instead, they dip into the IRA pool, reducing the share of others.

Ms Arroyo allowed 16 bills creating new cities to lapse into law. The 16 didn’t meet the Republic Act 9009 criterion of P100 million in income. The Supreme Court struck that down in “a final decision that had become executory.”

The Court, however, flip-flopped. It would “reconsider a final decision.” The 16 are back. But not their IRAs—for now.

Pontius Pilate was badgered to reconsider the text nailed to the cross. “Quod scripsi, scripsi,” he snapped. What I have written, I have written.

Tell that to some of our justices.

(Email: [email protected])

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.