Thursday, October 18, 2007

Political patronage

(This was my column yesterday, October 17)

The congressmen, governors, and other local executives who made a beeline to Malacañang last week could not agree on what it was. Nor could they come to an agreement on what it was for.

The very few who still take seriously the sanctity of their oath of office admitted receiving the money. Many others spoke to the media under various pretenses and conditions, some refused to be named or didn’t want their pretty faces recorded on camera; others hemmed and hawed and in general made fools of themselves trying to obfuscate the issue instead of simply confirming or denying the payola.

Most of the more than 190 congressmen and the rest of the governors simply disappeared from media’s radar and have since then been making a good impression of the proverbial three monkeys who saw nothing, heard nothing, and therefore spoke nothing.

So was it a bribe or an allowance?

Actually, it really doesn’t make a difference either way since both could mean the same thing. But since our political leaders have spent gargantuan efforts trying to make the distinction, we are tempted to indulge them.

Was it meant to buy their support at a time when a new impeachment process is being pursued against the President? Or was it simply spending money meant to cover expenses for the barangay elections?

Perhaps it was the Palace’s way of reminding our local executives in a not-so-subtle way just what exactly they stand to lose, or conversely, what they stand to gain if they continue to be loyal to the President? Or do we buy this yarn about how the money was meant as a bonus and therefore did not come with strings attached?

Our leaders may not come to an agreement about what it was or what it was for, but is not disputed anymore is that money did change hands. Lots and lots of money! And as trite as this may sound, we all know that money is the root of all evil; particularly money that comes from questionable sources and intended for dubious purposes.

Even if the timing of the whole thing stank to high heavens and hands were practically caught inside the cookie jar, Malacañang initially went into full denial mode. Someone even went berserk trying to project this holier-than-thou demeanor, as usual blaming everyone else for the supposed smear campaign against the President and her administration. As usual, it is everyone else that is at fault.

Unfortunately for them, the details of the payola have remained consistent and are quite difficult to obfuscate. The money came in bundles of crisp 1,000 peso bills, stuffed into a brown paper bag (how very clandestine indeed). Pampanga’s priest-governor, Among Ed Panlilio, even brandished to the media the exact bundle he received—all P500,000 in cold cash. Even worse, Panlilio is someone who remains credible even if he did eventually accept the money and meant to put it to good use.

That’s half a million pesos, distributed freely without vouchers or other obvious means of control or documentation, to each of the people present in that meeting. And just as a gift—no strings attached—to be spent as the lawmaker or local government executive pleases. It is entirely possible that despite my professional background as a banker, my standards in gift-giving remain dismally low, but surely, no one distributes that kind of money without strings attached.

A third question has just been added into the whole mess. Where did that all that money come from? The scuttlebutt is that at least P200 million in cold cash, all contained in supposedly nondescript brown bags, were being passed around in that place on that fateful day.

It appears now that the cash bonanza that happened last week was not unusual after all. At least not when our legislators and local executives are concerned. A number of our congressmen and even some Cabinet secretaries practically admitted that the practice of distributing cash gifts has been going on for quite sometime now.

One congressman admitted on public television that it has become customary for the speaker of the House or the President to give congressmen cash gifts before a recess or during occasions such as elections and Christmas.

The justification is that our congressmen need to have baon for their visitation to their respective districts. In other words, the munificence is trickled down and our congressmen and governors do their own versions of the cash bonanza at Malacañang last week. I guess this is what they referred to as “putting the money to good use,” or “sharing the money with our constituents.”

These things do happen. This kind of political patronage is deeply imbedded in our political system and no amount of riling about it can stop the practice unless we strike at the roots of the problem. So aside from the opportunity it gives to certain politicians to lengthen their media exposures, the current hullabaloo only serves limited purposes.

At most, it will make our politicians become more discreet next time around. Chances are, it will drive the practice underground—or to be more apt, under the table. But the practice will continue because it is the currency that drives our political system. Our congressmen and governors need to give mayors cash gifts when they meet them during their sorties. Mayors need to share the booty with their barangay captains who in turn need to be generous to their kagawads and the tanods, who in turn…

I am not talking yet about the kind of generosity our politicians are expected to display when they are asked to stand as sponsors to weddings, baptisms, confirmations of various relatives, acquaintances and constituents. When they attend a fiesta, get invited to judge a Miss Gay Universe contest, or inaugurate a water pump in some neighborhood, they are also expected to donate money or projects. And then there are the long lines outside their official residences— people needing medicines, transportation tickets, etc.

The salaries of our congressmen, governors, and mayors cannot cover all these representation expenses. They have to rely on political largesse and the President and her cohorts who are in deep trouble again because of this administration’s intrinsic corruptness are just too happy to throw money at them. No wonder most of them dropped everything to troop to the Palace last week.

I am not saying that what happened last week was justifiable. I am not saying we should condone it. All I am saying is that there is context around it. This culture of political patronage has been around for quite some time and will continue to be around for as long as voters continue to hound their elected leaders for all kinds of assistance.

What made what happened last week galling was the brazenness and shamelessness of it all. In short, bastusan at garapalan na talaga.

1 comment:

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