For the sheer drama it packs, the scheduled appearance of Janet Lim-Napoles at the Senate could rival in TV viewership the impeachment of then Chief Justice Renato Corona and of then President Joseph Estrada. What Janet might say before the Senate blue ribbon committee could permanently tear apart the fabric of Philippine political life. No doubt, it is events like these that make politics more fun in the Philippines. But, as we have seen, their implications for system reform are uncertain. Usually, they produce changes in the actors but not in the script.
Before we get carried away by our expectations, it may be useful to sort out the different scripts at play in this ongoing controversy.
There is the legal script, which has two acts. Act One takes place at the Supreme Court, and it centers on the constitutionality of the pork barrel and its various articulations. Act Two focuses on issues of criminal liability and unfolds slowly at the Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman.
Then there is the political script, which lies at the core of this whole drama. It has three acts. Act One is the one being played out in Malacañang. The question it poses is: Can P-Noy manage the pork barrel crisis in such a way that he emerges from it with his political capital intact or possibly even enhanced? Act Two is what is taking place in Congress—with the Senate occupying front stage. While the avowed purpose of the hearings to which Janet has been summoned is to accommodate public opinion in the crafting of better laws, its subtext is starkly political—in the pejorative sense of the word. This stage is set for floating and shooting down presidential ambitions.
There is a third political act that is taking place in the more unwieldy sphere of public opinion. It shifts locations as swiftly as anyone can post a satirical joke or cartoon, a revealing photo, a tweet, an update, a blog, or a call to action in cyberspace. Even as its most daring expressions are to be found in the social media, its home remains the traditional media—in the intertwining of print, broadcast, and radio where the pork barrel issue made its debut. This staging of the public sphere in the extraordinary fusion of the various media is what is confounding our traditional politicians. They can no longer manage issues with the flick of a wallet like they used to.
It is the public sphere that has the last say in a democracy. Its power grows in proportion to the loss in credibility of the principal branches of government—the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. It may catalyze radical political change and initiate a new political culture, but it can seldom be relied upon to design feasible institutions. More to the point, in societies like ours, public opinion tends to be segmented into a small vanguard that is calling for change, and the broad masses that remain trapped in existing relations of dependence and patronage. If the last barangay elections tell us anything about where the broad segment of our people are, it is that we cannot go very far in dismantling pork barrel politics.
We can’t expect the traditional politicians in Congress to legislate against their own interests. Neither can we hope to shame them for their bad performances, the way we can in the theater. Note the sneaky way the House made the Priority Development Assistance Fund disappear in the 2014 budget by parking it under some agencies of government while retaining the prerogative to determine its use. The Senate displays more sensitivity by delving into the mechanism of pork barrel abuse. But even there, one can only pray that the senators have the conscience to prioritize public policy over political ambition.
At this juncture, the more crucial episodes in this ongoing play are those taking place in the legal sphere. First, we should watch how the Supreme Court resolves the constitutional issues, paying particular attention to the way it deploys the modernist intentions of the 1987 Constitution as a weapon against patronage politics. Second, we should vigilantly follow the progress of the cases filed (and still to be filed) by the Department of Justice against lawmakers and their accomplices. My sense is that, with or without Janet’s testimony, there is more than enough testimonial and documentary evidence to warrant the filing of airtight cases. Finally, we should pressure the DOJ and the Ombudsman to widen the dragnet and start investigating other syndicates involved in the siphoning of public funds outside of the Napoles group of NGOs.
Again, the time frame for the hearing and resolution of these criminal cases is not assured. Our legal system is notorious for giving crafty, expensive, and influential lawyers inexhaustible opportunities for delaying the indictment of their clients in court. Since the accused in plunder cases are not allowed bail, chances are they may disappear before the courts can take custody of them. But even so, the successful filing of corruption and plunder charges against some of our most prominent politicians could by itself dramatically change the scenario for the 2016 presidential election.
The good news is that the stage is ready for the entry of reform-minded political parties. These, however, cannot be conjured from the amorphous activism of the digital world or from the angry assemblies in the streets. They have to be patiently organized—like new settler communities putting down roots on hostile ground, exemplifying the strengths of a democratic social order by the modern way they recruit and keep the loyalty of their members.