Heed Hard

The same issues keep cropping up, then and now. These are similar scandalous corruption issues that result in the shaky, tumultuous political events that have rocked the country for the past 15 years. History repeats itself, and we need to heed hard and learn harder from lessons of the past. If we do – by resolving past unresolved scandals and avoid new ones – the country can regain its 1999 status by 2013. If the Aquino government is serious and the momentum is gained for the next 3 years, we can overtake Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, and even match or surpass Malaysia and Brunei. The Corona impeachment is a litmus test for us to break the cycle of being a nation of scandals.

(click image to enlarge)

THE Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) recently released its latest global survey on Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and showed an improvement in the Philippine’s standing for 2011. Does this mean that the country is seeing some real hope in its fight against corruption?

The CPI is the only annual survey that sorts out perceived country corruption levels on a global scale. A CPI score near 10 is categorized as least corrupt, and a score near 1 is more corrupt. With a score of 2.6, the Philippines improved its rank at 129th place out of 182 countries, together with Armenia, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Syria. In 2010, the Philippines scored a lower 2.4 and placed in the 134th position out of 178 countries, joining Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Honduras, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

But while the Philippines improved in score and ranking, it still belongs to the 12th most corrupt countries in the world both in 2010 and 2011 (joining other countries in the same rank). In 2009, the country was part of the 13th most corrupt, with a score of 2.4 and 139th position out of 180 countries.

For 2011, New Zealand unsurprisingly came out as the least corrupt in the world with a 9.5 score, while Somalia and North Korea emerged as the most corrupt with a tied score of 1.0. In the 2010 survey, both New Zealand and Denmark topped as the least corrupt countries with a 9.3 score, and Somalia as the most corrupt in the world with a 1.1 score.

In the ASEAN front, the Philippines emerged as the 5th most corrupt next to Timor-Leste (2.4), Laos (2.2), Cambodia (2.1) and Myanmar (1.5). As usual, Singapore came out as the least corrupt with a 9.2 score, followed by Brunei (5.2), Malaysia (4.3), Thailand (3.4), Indonesia (3.0) and Vietnam (2.9). In 2010, the Philippines was the 3rd most corrupt country, next only to Cambodia and Laos (tied at 2.1) and Myanmar (1.4). Singapore was still on top at 9.3 score, followed by Brunei (5.5), Malaysia (4.4), Thailand (3.5), Indonesia (2.8), Vietnam (2.7) and Timor-Leste (2.5).

Interestingly, Malaysia used to tail Singapore but is now consigned one notch down due to the entry of Brunei. Because they are showing significant and consistent improvements, both Indonesia and Vietnam have already surpassed the Philippines in the CPI standing. The latter enjoyed advantage in higher score and rank than the former in the previous years. Myanmar is recently the consistently most corrupt in ASEAN, and one of the 2 second most corrupt countries in the world (together with Afghanistan) with a score of 1.5 in 2011.

A welcome relief

There might be some basis for seeing hope in the Philippine’s recent CPI standing. It gained a 2.6 score in 2011, two notches higher than the 2.4 score in 2010. In fact, the last time the country got the 2.6 score was in 2004. From 2005 to 2010, the country seesawed in 2.5-2.3-24 scores for the entire 6-year period of the GMA administration that is beset with the most number of mostly unresolved corruption scandals. Thus, it is not surprising to see the country’s lowest score of 2.3 in 2008; this can be a result of the accumulated public dissatisfaction over GMA’s credibility. This is also the lowest CPI score for the country for the past 15 years. By overlaying selected national corruption scandals, GMA had the lowest score as compared to the lowest of FVR (2.69 in 1996) and Erap’s short-lived term (2.8 in 2000). Interestingly, several SWS surveys showed that GMA got the lowest public approval ratings among the country’s top officials. Thus, the 2011 CPI score of 2.6 is a welcome relief.

Looking deeper by diachronic overlay of events, there seems to be a pattern of CPI behavior. The 2011’s 2.6 score occurred after the change of administration from GMA to Aquino as a result of the 2010 presidential elections. When GMA took over Erap in 2001, the country got a 2.9 score from the previous year’s 2.8. When Erap was elected after FVR’s term in 1998, the country’s CPI jumped to 3.6 in 1999 as compared to the previous year’s score of 3.3. Interestingly, the CPI score of 3.6 is the highest score so far that the country earned. During this year also, the Philippines was among the 20th most corrupt countries, with the rank of 54th out of 99 other countries. Erap must have benefited a lot from the economic rebound and political stabilization during the FVR’s term.

History repeats itself

The rise of CPI score in every change of presidency appears to react against scandals of the previous administration. This is fairly evident in the case of Erap (1998-1999), GMA (2000-2001), and Aquino (2010-2011). Because of the Jose Pidal and Hello Garci scandals from 2002-2004, GMA’s election in 2004 might have resulted in the decline of the country’s CPI in 2004-2005. This decline is the beginning of the country’s very low CPI scores spanning GMA’s entire term until 2010.

The 2011 CPI rise can reflect the growing public anger towards the many unresolved corruption scandals during GMA’s incumbency from 2004-2010, including the NBN-ZTE scandal, Fertilizer Fund scam, electoral sabotage charges, Garcia plunder case and plea bargain scandal (which sparked the impeachment of pro-GMA Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez – a first of its kind in the Philippines), the Maguindanao massacre and the controversial midnight appointments (which included and sparked the impeachment as well of the Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona – a first of its kind also in the Philippines).

In a similar fashion, the CPI rise from 2000-2001 appears to be a reaction against the scandals that plagued the Erap presidency which led to his impeachment in 2001. In fact, the sharpest CPI decline for the Philippines –  the widest drop margin of 8 points - happened in Erap’s term from 1999 (3.6) to 2000 (2.8). This could be a result of the accumulated public outcry against the scandals hounding his administration, most notably the midnight cabinet scandal, the presidential mistresses, the PCSO fund scam, BW Resources scandal, hot cars scandal and the Jose Velarde juetengate scandal among others.

FVR did not come out as completely clean, despite his good political and economic performance during his term. FVR was hounded and investigated in his role in the PEA-AMARI Manila Bay anomalous deal and the Centennial Expo scam. With the election to the presidency of the popular showbiz personality of then Vice President Erap, the country’s CPI standing might have reacted favorably from 3.3 in 1998 to 3.6 in 1999. This was of course spoiled by Erap’s scandals beginning in 2000 and his impeachment in 2001.

The Philippines became popular because of the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986, as a result of massive public outrage against the abuses and corruption of the Marcos regime from 1965-1986. In 2001, the country went again into EDSA People Power revolutions (so called EDSA Dos and EDSA Tres) because of the same issues of malfeasance in government.

Erap was impeached and later arrested because of plunder. GMA was able to dodge the series of impeachment complaints against her but was still arrested recently because of electoral sabotage (she was to be charged with other violations as well). Two Philippine presidents were indicted and arrested in successive terms. Add to that the impeachment of the Ombudsman and the Supreme Court Chief Justice.

The same issues keep cropping up, then and now. These are similar scandalous corruption issues that result in the shaky, tumultuous political events that have rocked the country for the past 15 years. History repeats itself, and we need to heed hard and learn harder from lessons of the past.

The scourge of scandals

Corruption scandals have a way to divide the country. Even established institutions – civil society groups, professional associations, business, even the Church – oftentimes find themselves pitted against the pros and the cons. If they protract and left unresolved, the scandals also have a way to fuel cynicism among the citizenry. This is especially true among the corruption issues perceived to be committed or coddled by those in position of power in government.

When an incumbent administration does not show resoluteness in resolving corruption scandals, people’s trust erodes. When erosion of public trust swells, it results in widespread public apathy, fomenting mockery and distortions of formal bureaucratic processes in government. This is the reason why rule of law is challenged and bureaucratic procedures mistrusted and breached. When the very institutional mechanisms not only fail to prevent and rectify the social ills but also being used to shield these ills, people lose trust in these mechanisms. These scandals have reached their level of impunity because of the dangerous blind adherence to procedures and technicality. This is what former UP Law School Dean Raul Pangalanan refers as the problem of legal formalism at the expense of the substance of the law. Years ago, then Sen. Rodolfo Biazon called it being lost in the legal gobbledygook.

The Filipino people have grown very tired of the scandals of the past administrations, most especially that of GMA’s presidential rule from 2001-2010. It was of deep providence that the death of former President Cory Aquino catapulted then Sen. Benigno Aquino III into the presidency to replace GMA. This was clearly shown by the widespread sympathetic outpourings for Cory Aquino's death in 2009. Such outpourings could have turned – as columnist Conrado de Quiros then warned – into an explosion of fury against the opposite of Cory. And the opposite is not Marcos, FVR or Erap.

A slippery slope but with a glint of hope

The CPI score of 2.6 in 2011 from the previous year’s 2.4 gives some meaningful glint of hope. It marks the positive public reaction to the transfer of power from GMA to Aquino. The SWS surveys also showed consistent high approval ratings for Pres. Aquino.

The Corona impeachment is the litmus test of the president’s resolve and public support to fix the corruption scandals left by the GMA administration. By his resolve, President Aquino has exercised – even significantly risked - some leadership in putting to task the Supreme Court Chief Justice for protecting GMA. Ateneo’s School of Government Dean Tony La ViƱa describes the slippery slope that the Aquino administration is threading on. Calculated well and backed up by an immense public support – founded on a very deep thirst to resolve corruption issues – the Corona impeachment and resolution can provide a glint of hope to break the cycle of being a nation of scandals.  Extraordinary circumstances indeed, call for extraordinary measures.

If the Aquino administration succeeds in the Corona case, it spells a good symbol of resoluteness to clean this government.  It is not far-fetched that the Philippines will improve further in the CPI standing in the coming years.

If Pres. Aquino is very careful to avoid a scandal of his own administration and maintains his high approval rating, the Philippines can practically get back to the 1999 CPI level of 3.6. And when momentum is gained over time – where past scandals are resolved and no new scandals emerge – combined with consistent public approval for the entire Aquino’s term, it is not implausible to see the Philippine standing at the CPI level of 4 or 5, overtaking Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, even matching or surpassing Malaysia and Brunei.

Future administrations must heed hard history's lesson: scandals don’t pay! And the incumbent should seriously pave the way.