Where do we go from here?

Toward the end of his privilege speech on the pork barrel scam last Sept. 25, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, one of the lawmakers who have been charged with plunder, claimed that he and his colleagues in the opposition were being unjustly singled out and persecuted for something that is widely known and/or practiced by perhaps every member of Congress.

He said: “I believe that we all here are victims of a flawed system which is so ingrained that it has been institutionalized. However, the recent events which unfolded before us have given us the chance to finally reform the system and do away with the ‘pork barrel’ mentality.”

Senator Estrada’s speech could have been written by an observer with a sociological mind.  There is more than a grain of truth in it, for indeed, the pork barrel system has become an essential mechanism in the “normal” functioning of our political system. It is the grease that lubricates the patronage machine. Only lately has it become clear that the system is “flawed,” in the sense that it is vulnerable to brazen abuse. But it is ridiculous for the senator to claim that practitioners of the pork barrel system like himself are “victims” of this flawed system.

To say this is to depict himself as bereft of any sense of agency or personal responsibility for what he does. One might understand the predicament of a new lawmaker who decides to suspend judgment and keep silent even as he or she is shocked to see the corruption of his/her venerable colleagues. But Senator Estrada is no neophyte politician. Though he may be relatively young in age, he is an old hand in the world of politics.

He rails against the hypocrisy of his colleagues who assert the power to investigate even as they themselves are not exactly blameless. He has a point. But he forgets that ours is supposed to be a government of laws and not of men, that Congress as an institution is bigger than the sum of the individuals that constitute it. Accordingly, the Senate has no choice but to distance itself from the criminal actions of its members if it is to preserve its credibility as an institution. There is no denying the fact that politics lurks at every single moment of these investigations. But the blade cuts both ways. The investigators can easily end up being themselves the investigated.

In itself, that is not a problem—so long as we don’t allow the code of partisan politics to dictate the functioning of the legal system, or of the mass media, or, indeed, of the protest movement. If we are so minded, our society has enough institutional means available to correct itself. The key lies in the protection of the autonomy of these different institutions.

Right now, all eyes are focused on the mechanisms of the legal system and how well they can insulate themselves from politics. Every effort will be made by those who stand accused in this pork barrel scam to impugn the credibility of the Department of Justice, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the Sandiganbayan. The heads of these institutions owe it to the country to be professional and undeterred in their work during this critical time.

The same goes for the mass media. The enemies of reform may be able to corrupt a few media people, but, in the age of social media, it is almost impossible to capture all of mass media and assimilate these into any of the other systems, like politics. Which is not to say there won’t be sustained attempts at disinformation and deliberate obfuscation. There will be, but it will not take long for the public to realize where these are coming from. It may be easy to mislead people, but today it is not difficult to verify information. This is largely because of the astounding diversity of information sources to which the public can turn.

The social media’s various platforms have made protest movements the complex affairs they are today. People are now more prone to participate in mass actions at short notice, without fully grasping the issues and nuances behind the protest they are joining. But, for this same reason, their commitments tend to be shallow and easily withdrawn at the slightest suspicion that they are being manipulated.

Watching the twists and turns taken by the antipork movement in the last few weeks, for example, one can’t help noticing the deliberate attempt to redirect public outrage and focus it on President Aquino. This is done by depicting him as the chief dispenser of pork, and, therefore, the one most responsible for perpetuating a rotten system. The shift in focus draws attention away from the criminal liability of the lawmakers and the public officials and private individuals who enabled them to pocket their pork barrel allotments. At the same time, by targeting the head of government, this strategy raises the political crisis to a level where change can now be equated with the toppling of a president.

No sensible person can possibly believe that the resignation or overthrow of P-Noy can put an end to our pork-barrel-driven political system—unless one thinks the Vice President who will replace him is in a better position to press the plunder cases, and institute necessary controls in the expenditure of public funds. All this is not to say that pressure should not be applied on the executive branch in the effort to plug the loopholes by which public funds are stolen or wasted. Indeed no one should be spared.

But, any enduring solution has to lie in the last analysis on the ability of the various institutional spheres of our society to demand accountability, as well as on their capacity to look into themselves and reflect critically on their own performances.

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