Watch What Happens When You Steal $220 Million From the Middle Class


Since his election in 2010, the reformist President Benigno Aquino III, who unequivocally proclaimed “good governance” (tuwid na daan) as the centerpiece of his administration’s agenda, has raised hopes of a turnabout in the Philippines’ fortunes. Today, the once lackluster Southeast Asian nation proudly stands as one the most resilient, dynamic economies in the region, growing by a whopping 7.8% in the first-quarter of 2013, the highest in Asia.

By most estimates, the Philippines is expected to grow by an average rate of around 6% in the foreseeable future, sparking serious discussions among investors, academics and policy-makers as to the country's potential to become Asia’s new tiger economy.

But recent revelations of a PHP 10 billion ($220 million) corruption scandal, implicating dozens of legislators — including a number of prospective candidates for the 2016 presidential elections — in the misappropriation of their pork barrel funds, has exposed the paucity of state institutions, galvanizing the Filipino public, especially the rising middle class, like never before.

Topping the list of alleged plunderers are opposition stalwarts, namely former Senate President Juan P. Enrile, and Senators Jingoy Estrada, Bong Revilla Jr., and "Bongbong" Marcos. Aquino and his main allies are largely unscathed, but the whole drama has cast a dark shadow on the legislature, supposedly the bastion of checks and balances against the executive.

On August 26, which was National Heroes Day, reportedly to 75,000 Filipinos braved rain and mud to stage a Facebook-coordinated rally in the iconic Luneta Park in the old city of Manila, with participants calling for the prosecution of corrupt officials, the abolition of the pork barrel system, and an overhaul of the country’s creaking political institutions, which have been mired in scandal after scandal throughout recent decades.

Concurrent rallies across the country and beyond supported the Manila gathering, with thousands of fellow citizens expressing their anger against the impotence of the country’s leadership amid massive corruption. It marked the strongest show of force by the civil society against the perceived greed and incompetence of the political elite.

As far back as the “Martial Law” years in the 1970s, the Philippines has witnessed a spate of popular mobilizations for democratic change and political reform, culminating in the 1986 “People Power” Revolution, which toppled the Marcos regime.

A distinct characteristic of the August “Million People March,” however, was its seemingly post-ideological characteristic, making it extremely similar to recent protests in places such as Turkey and Brazil, where thousands of youthful, educated middle class citizens took to the streets to demand accountability and reform.  

The “Million People March” in Manila was largely organized through social networking sites, with Facebook and Twitter serving as the main platforms of exchanging views, planning, and information dissemination. The main actors were the “netizens” instead of traditional political operators. The loose network of informal organizers was consciously anti-ideological, explicitly disparaging left or progressive groups and calling for a slogan-free rally. In fact, in the run up to as well as during the rally itself, there were no visible signs of a central leadership or a steering organization of any sort — political figures were either discouraged from attending or cautioned against making any parochial speech.

The sheer size and relative spontaneity of the rallies also served as a clear signal that the Aquino’s historic-high approval-ratings don’t equate to civic passivity. In the words of American scholar Francis Fukuyama, the rally should be seen as how “no established democracy should believe it can rest on its laurels, simply because it holds elections and has leaders who do well in opinion polls.”

Under pressure, the Philippine government has promised to revisit its pork barrel system, institute more checks and balances into existing fiscal allocation mechanisms, and prosecute corrupt officials. The alleged mastermind behind the $220 million scam, Janet Napoles, is currently under arrest, while a Blue Ribbon Commission under the auspices of the Philippine Senate along with the executive-formed Inter-Agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council are taking up the cudgels against powerful figures implicated in the corruption scandal.

While marking the return of the Filipino middle class to the political fray, given their increasing stake in the proper dispensation of their tax money, the anti-corruption rally’s main strengths — namely its savvy optimization of new technology, non-partisan character, and relative spontaneity — are also equally its core vulnerabilities. Similar to other post-ideological uprisings in recent years, beginning with the initial waves of the Arab spring, there are little indications of a sustained, effective push for greater accountability in the Philippine political system. What we are seeing, as Marxist Philosopher Slavoj Zizek eloquently puts it, is primarily a “fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands.”

Thus, the biggest challenge is to establish a fairly stable consensus on how to concretely reform state institutions. And this requires a singular, overarching leadership and program of action, backed by coherent and organized efforts that go beyond momentary outbursts of frustration and discontent on Facebook and Twitter. Otherwise, the well-entrenched forces of corruption will continue their domination of the corrupt Philippine political system.