Root of corruption
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 16, 2018 - 12:00am

After the barangay elections (which he skipped) wherein some of those on his narco list reportedly won, President Duterte should push his super majority in Congress to pass a comprehensive campaign finance law.

Duterte, in outlining his priorities, says his battle against corruption is right up there with his war on illegal drugs. Any fight against corruption must address one of its roots in this weak republic: financing for election campaigns.

Effective regulation of campaign fund raising and spending can also help in the battles against money laundering and sources of dirty money: drug trafficking, jueteng, smuggling, carjacking, kidnapping for ransom, bank and armored van robberies. I mention these crimes because several politicians have been accused of engaging in them, with the activities peaking during election seasons.

Every Congress since the collapse of the Marcos dictatorship, however, has resisted proposals for any honest-to-goodness regulation of campaign financing.

You can’t expect lawmakers to kill a top source of their golden eggs. Campaign fund raising has become such a lucrative activity, with virtually no accountability, that we like to say that some individuals run for elective office chiefly for the fund of it.

Channeling funds to election campaigns has become a perfect way to launder dirty money. Drug money has turned criminals not only into barangay captains but also mayors, governors and (if the narco list is correct) congressmen.

The President knows this well enough; his cops went after the Parojinog clan of Ozamiz and the Espinosas of Albuera, Leyte. Duterte reportedly has a few more clans in his crosshairs.

But eliminating narco politicians should be accompanied by preventive measures. And among the best weapons for prevention is effective regulation of campaign financing.

*      *      *

The problem is evident even in the barangay elections. A businessman in Metro Manila, who helped in the campaigns of several candidates in last Monday’s elections, estimated that at least P3 million was needed to run for barangay captain in a mid-sized chartered city.

You’ve heard of some of the campaign expenditures. Aside from posters and streamers, a large chunk of the campaign kitty goes to keeping voters happy. Crunch time – the final two days of the campaign – is also gapangan time, when candidates or their operatives make the last-minute pitches, often resorting to door-to-door hard sell, armed with bundles of happiness for distribution to voters.

The going rate for happiness in the businessman’s barangay was about P1,000 per voter. Elsewhere, the rates hit as high as P3,000. This was reported by monitoring teams of the office in charge of barangays in the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

Over the weekend I waited and waited for a candidate to come knocking at my home and offer me happiness. Until the indelible ink was daubed on my forefinger at the polling precinct on Monday, however, no one slipped me even a free tablet of paracetamol. 

But the DILG reported widespread vote-buying, with amounts going up from P500 in the previous elections to P3,000 per voter.

Where do the funds come from, and how are such investments recovered, by both the donor and winning candidate?

The answers provide an idea of the roots of corruption in our country.

*      *      *

The DILG said it would go after about 100 congressmen – that’s over a third of the representatives – and more than 1,000 local government officials for electioneering, for intervening in various ways to support the campaigns of barangay candidates. Several congressmen yesterday dared the DILG to name names.

As I have written, barangay officials are supposed to be non-partisan, but in reality align themselves with political parties or clans. In return they get financial and other forms of support for their election campaigns and barangay programs. Some barangay officials readily become part of a political kingpin’s private army.

In previous elections, there were reports about barangay officials even threatening to have certain families taken out as beneficiaries of the conditional cash transfer for supporting rivals of the politicians backed by the barangay personnel.

If the DILG makes good on its threat to prosecute those 1,000 local government executives plus 100 congressmen for electioneering, it would be a refreshing first that must be sustained.

Barangay candidates are free to finance their campaigns out of their own pockets. The average candidate, however, is middle- or lower-income. Where will such candidates get P3 million for an undertaking where victory is not even guaranteed?

If they invest their life savings in the campaign and they win, they won’t write off those expenses as the cost of public service. As in races for higher elective positions, barangay campaign funds are investments for which returns are expected.

*      *      *

This is where the corruption comes in. Sweetheart deals are awarded to relatives and supporters. Or else the winning barangay captain looks the other way in the face of his campaign supporters’ jueteng operations and even, as we have seen, drug trafficking. Or the captain himself engages in the illegal activities.

In higher elective posts, campaign supporters are appointed to head critical offices even if they lack the qualifications. Or else they get to recommend relatives and friends, even if undeserving, for appointments or promotions. The religious mafia has widely used this type of influence peddling to exert control over the justice system and police. One reason the military has achieved a measure of professionalism is that its system of appointments and promotions has been insulated from too much political meddling.

In other agencies, however, political supporters who cash in their chips by seeking appointments and promotions from winning candidates are among the biggest reasons for our failure to develop a merit-based society.

If campaign donors and their contributions are identified, the public can see which appointments, actions and policies of election winners are mainly political payback.

There have been half-hearted efforts to promote transparency and accountability in campaign finance, from contributions to expenditures. But even candidates for president have largely ignored the rules, and the Commission on Elections has been toothless in its enforcement.

President Duterte has been conducting an unprecedented purge in the executive branch. He can surprise us with an unprecedented push for the passage of a powerful tool in fighting corruption, a law regulating campaign finance.

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