Political capital

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

How much political capital is President Marcos willing to expend on yet another effort to rehabilitate his father’s image?

The proposal to set up a “Maharlika” sovereign wealth fund, spearheaded by his cousin the House Speaker and son the congressman, is generating concern and opposition across the political spectrum.

Even the central bank governor and the super ate ng Pangulo have expressed misgivings about the proposal.

This time, the divisive color coders can’t simply attribute the protests to chronic political losers. The concerns are being raised by people who have held steady employment or sustainable livelihoods over a period long enough to expect that they can have a pension fund, modest as it may be, to lean on upon retirement.

It’s not a segment that can be appeased with the default pacifier of populists – ayuda doled out at taxpayers’ expense.

Concerns, whether valid or not, have just been reinforced by the approval of the 2023 national budget by the bicameral conference committee.

When it comes to reducing transparency and accountability in the utilization of public funds, you can trust Congress to pull out all the stops.

After making some noise about scrutinizing the confidential and intelligence funds approved by the House of Representatives in the 2023 national budget, President Marcos’ singing buddies in the Senate went along with the CIF appropriation anyway.

The bicam restored in full the P150 million CIF of the Department of Education and P500 million for the Office of the Vice President.

The debate over the CIF tended to show a preference for blank checks in the utilization of people’s money.

It has exacerbated the trust issues bedeviling the latest pet project of the current naghaharing uri, the Maharlika. It hasn’t helped that officials such as Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo have spoken up in defense of the wealth fund.

The President himself is reportedly supporting the proposal. Considering the principal movers, it looks like the House of Representatives is raring to rubber-stamp the proposal pronto, overwhelmingly.

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There are conflicting statements about who would be running the fund. BBM himself, still grappling with multiple crises in the agriculture sector, is supposed to chair the fund. His son the congressman says it can be left entirely to technocrats, to keep politics out. Good luck on that; is there anything in this country that politicians don’t want to touch?

Also, who might the lucky technocrat be? If regular banking practices are to be followed, the technocrat will get a fund management fee, which could range from .5 to 2 percent of the envisioned P275-billion fund. It will truly be a wealth fund for the technocrat.

Fund proponents even want to influence decision making in the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, in the utilization of our gross international reserves. Fortunately, BSP Governor Felipe Medalla, who enjoys security of tenure, is standing his ground and effectively saying, keep your paws off the GIR.

Members of the Social Security System (SSS) and Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) – a sizable portion of the entire adult population – are saying the same thing about their pension funds.

People may have no full understanding of sovereign wealth funds, but they can clearly grasp the idea of someone trying to get their hands on money deducted from their earnings over several decades.

Overseas Filipino workers and business process outsourcing employees, whose earnings are also being eyed for Maharlika, may not fully understand what sovereign wealth means, but it’s a safe bet that most of them understand the concept of ill-gotten wealth.

Suddenly, there is heightened awareness of what happened to Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad. Oil money gave Malaysia hefty surplus funds to create 1MDB. Filipinos have first-hand experience with the large-scale corruption that doomed the wealth fund of Malaysia.

And while corruption has also been a bane in Malaysia, its legal and regulatory structures for dealing with the problem are stronger than those of the Philippines.

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The proposal also seems to be alleviating the serious case of national Alzheimer’s disease in this country. Public concern over Maharlika is dredging up the sins of the forebears that Marcos 2.0 says should not be visited on the son: the crony capitalism, behest loans and the economic sinkhole that compelled the Philippines to seek adjustment or stabilization programs with the International Monetary Fund beginning in the 1970s.

Former Senate president Franklin Drilon says the SSS and GSIS funds belong to the people and not the government. The fund holders’ approval would therefore be needed if their pension money would be diverted to a sovereign wealth fund. If this approval is not sought, the issue can be challenged in court, Drilon says.

Since SSS and GSIS members are objecting to the use of pension funds for Maharlika, there are suggestions on social media that BBM may simply jumpstart the sovereign wealth fund by paying his family’s P200 billion estate tax.

People suddenly remember that his first choice for revenue commissioner, Lilia Guillermo, who openly said she would run after the Marcos family’s estate tax as ordered by the tax court, was kicked out just five months on the job.

Even the hugely popular, populist Rodrigo Duterte knew when to put on the brakes when he saw public outrage. But then Duterte is an astute, streetsmart politician attuned to the public pulse.

Just six months in office, Marcos Junior risks looking tone-deaf.

As the manure hits the fan, it’s not flying in the direction of Maharlika’s principal endorsers – Marcos’ son, cousin, Finance Secretary Ben Diokno, Reps. Joey Salceda, Stella Luz Quimbo or GMA.

Instead the manure is hitting mostly President Marcos himself.


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