Why Duterte’s anti-corruption efforts are destined to fail

When Rodrigo Duterte was still a presidential candidate, he dared to be killed if he can’t end corruption in 6 months. Four years in office, nothing happened. Where did he go wrong?

In 2016, a Philippine presidential wannabe dared, “Kill me if I fail to bust crime, corruption in 6 months“. Mind you, he won and became known as President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (PRRD). However, four years later, corruption not only remained but even became worse, prompting Duterte to declare that he will devote his remaining years in office to fight it and even created a mega-task force for the purpose. Will he finally do it well this time?

According to Alberto Vanucci of the Università di Pisa in his paper “Three paradigms for the analysis of corruption”, corruption can be viewed in three lenses — the economic, cultural and neo-institutional paradigms.

The economic paradigm is based on the idea that “corruption is considered the outcome of rational individual choices, and its spread within a certain organization is influenced by the factors defining the structure of expected costs and rewards.” Banking on the theory of individual utility maximization, the economic paradigm simply assumes that “an individual will be involved in corruption if the benefits associated with the act are expected to outweigh the costs.” So if a convicted plunderer or corrupt official will just be freed in the end and even elected again to office, the benefit of siphoning public money for private use outweighs the costs of being branded as such. Hence, what the said plunderer or corrupt official will do is steal big and invest a portion to future powerholders who can grant the freedom if not the pardon, and another portion to buy the electorates.

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The second paradigm, according to Vanucci is the cultural paradigm which “looks at the differences in cultural traditions, social norms and interiorized values which shape individuals’ moral preferences and consideration of his social and institutional role.” Simply put, if Robin Hood politicians are acceptable in a society, the more they proliferate. They will steal public goods, pocket a portion of their loot and distribute the rest.

A society tolerating corruption is usually flooded with statements like: “Everybody is corrupt so I will just choose the lesser evil or less corrupt”, or “I will vote for him/her because at least he is sharing what he got from the public coffers”. As part of its voters’ education in the past, the Catholic Church, had also been saying, “Ang pera sa bulsa, ang boto sa balota (Money is for the pocket, the vote is for the ballot)”. Similarly, self-proclaimed anti-corruption advocates have also been shouting during the NBN-ZTE scandal, “Moderate your greed”. Both statements imply that it is okay to accept money during elections as long as you vote what is in your conscience or it is just okay to be greedy as long as it is in moderation.

The third paradigm is the neo-institutional paradigm which “considers not only moral values or economic incentives, but also mechanisms which allow the internal regulation of social interactions within corrupt networks, and their effects on individuals’ beliefs and preferences”. Giving bribes, accepting grease money in exchange for public goods or services and other under-the-table transactions that has become part of the norm or tradition fall under this category. A birthday mañanita, pabaon or a simple act of giving a gift to a government official because of an occasion despite the prohibition by law are also examples.

Vanucci, however, undermined the fourth, and possibly the most important variable — politics. He subsumed it under the economic variable and considered it only as part of the cost-benefit analysis. In reality, it is politics that cements the three paradigms and the variable that gives us the purview of power relations that is inherent in corrupt systems. As Robert Klitgaard formulated, “Corruption equals monopoly plus discretion minus accountability” or

The monopoly variable, instead of just focusing on economic rent as offered by U Myint in a paper he published in the Asia Pacific Journal, is a clear recognition of the role of power relations which can easily be understood in the political sense.

Societies that Red-tag the critics of the administration or where those who offer solutions or simply asks questions are replied with “Dami mong reklamo. Bakit di ka na lang mag-Presidente? (You have a lot of complaints. Why don’t you just be the President?)” generally tolerate non-accountability and even abuse of discretionary powers. Such societies are, just like the Philippines, under corrupt systems — a reality that PRRD accepted. As the reported by the Transparency International, the Philippines ranks 113 of the 198 countries with a corruption perception index score of 34/100 with 100 as the least corrupt.

PRRD, however, has a different view to eradicate corruption — either castigate or remove those he think are guilty and the problem will vanish — a view similar to his war on drugs. Unfortunately, the problem is not that simple as the Coronavirus disease (COVID)-19 pandemic exposed one scandal after the other. In 2020 alone, the questionable entry of Chinese especially in times when entry of foreigners especially from where COVID-19 originated facilitated the discovery of the PhP 40 billion “pastillas bribery scandal”. This was followed by the PhilHealth scandal which toyed with the health insurance funds that are supposed to help address the financial burden brought about by hospitalization under the pandemic, and the corruption in the Department of Public Works and Highways.

With corruption scandals unfolding one after the other, PRRD created a mega task force to combat corruption starting from the DPWH and increasing the mandate to cover all agencies of the government. This is despite the facts that he already activated the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) when he assumed his post, and that there is an independent anti-corruption commission, the Office of the Ombudsman, to deal with corruption issues. This drives messages that he is serious with his promise to eradicate corruption and that the PACC and the Ombudsman are inutile, if not enough to address the whole gamut of corruption in the government.

Unfortunately, PRRD had been sending wrong signals earlier whether intentionally or not. Immediately after he won the elections, he offered to pardon former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was embroiled in various corruption charges  including the alleged misuse of P366-million Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) intelligence funds during her presidency. Second, aside from allowing a known plunderer, former President Ferdinand Marcos, be buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani, he was also seen fraternizing with other known corrupt officials including another convicted plunderer, former President Joseph Estrada.

From left: Former President Joseph Estrada, President Duterte, former President Gloria Arroyo and former First Lady Imelda Marcos. Photo taken during Estrada’s birthday last April 19, 2017.

Third, instead of suspending or removing from office government officials being linked to corruption, he either transferred them to another post or absolved them outright without any investigation undertaken. Nicanor Faeldon, for instance, was transferred thrice from one office to another after PRRD called him “an honest man“. Another is Public Works Secretary who, PRRD described as “Si Villar, mayaman. Si Secretary Villar maraming pera, hindi yan kailangang mangurakot. (Villar is rich. Secretary Villar has a lot of money and there is no need for him to be corrupt.)”

While it is true that he had suspended minor officials, the signals just became clearer — there is a caste system in the Duterte Administration and one of those castes are the group of untouchables. Even the PACC could do nothing because it cannot not even publish the list of officials it investigated. Worse, while the PACC is planning to submit the list of Congressmen alleged to have been involved in the corruption in the Department of Public Works and Highways, PRRD said outright that he could not make any investigation because he has no jurisdiction over these Congressmen considering that they belong to another branch of the government. This is another way of saying: Pack-up, PACC!

Next, PRRD was also silent when Ombudsman Samuel Martires issued Memorandum Circular No. 1 series of 2020 last September 1 2020 restricting access to the Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SALN). While it can be claimed that the President has no hand on Martires’s order the latter being an independent body, an opposing public opinion will always surface as PRRD continually failed to show his SALN and debunk the accusations of former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV. In short, the President became a leader by example encouraging government officials to amass wealth including ill-gotten ones as long as they are careful. At any rate, the SALN which is an basis for official wealth declarations, will be hardly, if not impossible, to access.

While it is true that PRRD opened an anti-corruption hotline, the conditions that encourage people to report is missing. No major anti-corruption policy was enacted — not even policies that encourage government transparency and accountability. Lastly, corruption sniffing dogs are not from Malacañang but from the media and the Senate. The PACC which PRRD considered to help rid of corruption in six months remained nothing but a puppy that is so cute with its wagging tail.

4 thoughts on “Why Duterte’s anti-corruption efforts are destined to fail”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this overview of corruption within the political economy of the Philippines. It has a universal relevance to corruption occurring in countries all around the world. Corruption is the new meaning of life, somehow, It is hard to deny it.

    Like

  2. I understand now why the Philippines is at the bottom of the corruption index ranking. It simply means your president is just all talk. I thought he’s got the balls as he could curse the head of the Catholic Church, Barack Obama and other world leaders.

    Like

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