Editorial: Blank check

Editorial: Blank check
Philippine Daily Inquirer

PLACING the entire island of Mindanao under a “state of calamity” allows affected towns, cities and provinces suffering from a severe power shortage to use as much as five percent of their respective budgets to fund emergency measures. This provision, however, amounts to a virtual blank check that unscrupulous politicians can use, not only to help bankroll their own election campaigns, but also to underwrite election fraud.

The deputy presidential spokesman, Gary Olivar, gave the official rationale: “The importation of gensets, maybe even power barges, which have much higher mega-wattage, will require calamity funds that will be mobilized by the declaration of a state of calamity.” There is no quarrel here. The Arroyo administration has failed to prepare for the onset of the (cyclical) El Niño weather pattern, despite being long forecast, and as a result, millions of Filipinos have had to endure rotating power outages that run for hours; the need for quick fixes is dire.

It is a usually hands-on administration’s unusual lack of control on the use of the five-percent provision that is worrying. All together, the total amount must run into at least a few billion pesos. (In 2009, the share of Mindanao’s local government units or LGUs in the Internal Revenue Allotment or IRA amounted to a total of P68.9 billion. Since some LGUs have other sources of income, the figure of roughly P3.5 billion, about five percent of the total share of IRA, represents the minimum amount involved.)

An administration ally, Cagayan de Oro City Mayor Constantino Jaraula, noted that “although there is a chance for abuse” of the authorization to release five percent of respective budgets, people should “assume good faith” in President Macapagal-Arroyo. But that would be like turning the clock to before July 2005 and the Hello Garci scandal. The public’s ready assumption of bad faith on the part of the President is one serious consequence of her persistent crisis of legitimacy.

In other words, President Arroyo has not succeeded in rebutting the firm belief of the majority of the people that she cheated in the 2004 elections; that she used government resources, such as the fertilizer fund administered by Joc-Joc Bolante, to buy political support; that she utilized soldiers of the military to help manipulate the vote in Mindanao.

It doesn’t help Malacañang any when a politically tone-deaf Ricardo Saludo, now the President’s chief spokesman, called the warnings raised by rival presidential candidates about a possible diversion of the five-percent funds a mere “campaign stunt to land on newspapers’ front pages.”

Is accountability in the use of government money now no longer important enough to the Arroyo administration that raising concerns about it is derided as mere election campaigning? The last time we checked, accountability is the principal responsibility elected and appointive officials owe the citizens of a republic.

Subsequently, Saludo fine-tuned his approach. First, he said, the Mindanao LGUs’ spending “will be subject to COA audit.” Then, in a radio interview, he said that the spending would be monitored by non-government organizations and the churches. “We have civil society and private sector observers,” he said.

Nothing wrong with either measure—except that, at best, they can only confirm wrongdoing after the dirty deed is done. In a political system that virtually leaves election cheats unpunished, this will have the effect of encouraging the use of part of the newly available money for election-related purposes.

Jesus Dureza, chief of the new Mindanao Development Authority, offered an argument from consequence: “The Mindanaoans are suffering and will never forgive anyone who would fool around with the calamity fund at a time of crisis like this.” That is likely true, but fooling around depends to a great extent on when the foolishness can come to light. If the dirty deed is done, it may be too late.

Besides, no one is seriously suggesting that all of the five-percent funds, some P3.5 billion at a minimum, will go to the pockets of the politicians or to election-related spending. We will see generator sets being purchased, power barges being leased, alleviation programs for hard-hit farmers being launched. But then election operators won’t need all of that newly vulnerable money; just a few millions here, more millions there—and the dirty deed of defrauding the electorate is done.

Karen Ang

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