Judicial revolt and Aquino’s mispriorites

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The judges’ threat to stage a “revolt” and resign is not just a reaction to poor priorities set in the national budget. It is indicative of dissatisfaction that has started to build up against a wavering and compromising presidential leadership and at slim prospects of seeing reform being undertaken under Aquino III.

By the Policy Study, Publication, and Advocacy
Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG)
September 16,, 2010

The threat of a judicial revolt against the administration’s failure to earmark a decent budget for the judiciary unveils a creeping dissatisfaction from several sectors in the country today. This dissatisfaction springs not only from a lack of administrative response to age-old problems besetting state institutions of which the judiciary is just one but also the widening gap between promises made by Benigno S. Aquino III and the actions – or blunders – that have been done since he became the nation’s 15th President 78 days ago.

Campaigning for the presidency before the May 10 elections, Aquino III promised to double the budget of the judiciary “to enable it to pursue its own reform program and deliver justice for all.” He also vowed to reduce the vacancy of the courts and the prosecution to single digit figures; and to reduce the average length of a case in court “through improvements in the prosecution service and the public defenders.”

The proposed Php1.645 trillion national budget submitted to Congress for enactment on August 25, however, allocates only Php14.1 billion for the judiciary or way below the Php27-bn budget the judiciary is asking for next year. The new judiciary fund is just Php1 billion higher than its current budget of Php13.3 billion which Aquino III had promised to double.

Conversely, Aquino III’s “reform budget” allocates Php 24.8 billion for the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF or pork barrel) – an increase by Php13.9 billion or 129 percent from the current allotment. Funding for the armed forces will increase by 17.9 percent and the controversial debt servicing by 29.2 percent. The budget for the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) will increase by a whopping 122.7 percent to Php34.3 billion. Comparatively, the allocation for the judiciary is less than 1 percent of the total budget while that of the unproductive PDAF is nearly 2 percent; armed forces, 4.7 percent, debt servicing, 22.6 percent, and DSWD, 34.1 percent.

An independent branch

Bemoaning their meager fund, a number of judges said that the budget as originally proposed by the judiciary should have been given due course it being an independent and co-equal branch of government. A walkout is being mulled in protest while a few have vented their ire through the media threatening to resign and going back to private practice.

If there is any institution that needs priority attention in terms of resource allocation, one of these is the judiciary – it is, to say the least, undermanned, under-funded, and underdeveloped. About 23 percent of magistrate posts are vacant while salary increases for 2,300 justices and judges have not been released for the last three years. Courts remain clogged: about 600,000 cases remain pending nationwide, 6,000 of these with the Supreme Court (SC). Court facilities especially at the local level are ill-equipped and dilapidated.

The string budget also poses a setback to special courts created in 2007 to try cases of politically-motivated extra-judicial killings.

One of the principles underlining Aquino III’s “reform budget” “is transparency and accountability to make government productive.” Clearly, the paltry allocation for the judiciary makes this objective a sham. More than this, the system of allotments governing the proposed budget betrays a particular bias and a retreat from the commitments made by the President especially his centerpiece anti-corruption program.

As noted by the economic think tank Ibon Foundation, Aquino III’s “reform budget” is extravagant with patronage funds and is vulnerable to corruption. Going against public clamor, the President not only maintained but also increased the PDAF by several folds. PDAF – or pork barrel – guarantees congressional alignment to the presidency in exchange for annual “development funds” much of which ends up in corruption.

However, it is precisely pork barrel and other perks provided by the chief executive that has undercut Congress’ independence and its role as a check-and-balance vis-à-vis the President. By maintaining and increasing the pork barrel, Aquino III in effect has given corruption a tacit endorsement. Governance by political patronage makes the Aquino presidency no different from Macapagal-Arroyo. The higher the expectation of the chief executive is from the dominant traditional legislators to support his legislative and political agenda the bigger the pork barrel must then be allocated.

Other sources of corruption

Other possible sources of corruption, the think tank says, are the Php29.2-billion Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) especially its Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) component. Aside from being unsustainable, the program does not basically address the roots of poverty and opens big opportunities for corruption at both the local and national levels. The record of DSWD which will administer the money is not that impeccable: Its name was dragged in the diversion of relief goods for Typhoon Ondoy victims last year. Also prone to misspending are large but vague lump-sum items for the departments of agriculture, public works and highways, and transportation and communication, Ibon adds.

The Aquino III administration started with a wrong foot in its first 100 days. Cabinet appointments were decided largely in terms of paying back Aquino III’s supporters many of them from big business. In accommodating almost every interest group who supported him, he has practically opened the Cabinet to infighting and factionalism thus weakening the executive office at its formative stage. The botched hostage crisis revealed not only a lack of experience in crisis management but also serious organic cracks within the interior and local government department and the communications group.

All that Aquino III could do in fulfilling his pledge to end corruption is to form a Truth Commission – a toothless and footless fact-finding body which is mandated to finish its investigation on corruption cases involving the past administration by end-2012. To say the least, creating a superbody with no powers of prosecution makes this presidential move to address corruption a farce and reveals a lack of political will and decisiveness on the part of the new chief executive to fulfill a major promise.

While he packs a kid’s glove on the alleged corruption cases of the Arroyo administration, Aquino III needs a house cleaning within his own government. Unimpeachable sources revealed this week that top officials in the Aquino government involved in security matters are on the take in the Php38-billion jueteng (or illegal numbers game) industry.

Given his inability to fulfill a campaign promise of land distribution in the family-owned Hacienda Luisita, farmers cannot expect any meaningful act with regard to genuine agrarian reform. In fact the peasant sector has already lost seven farmer activists to extra-judicial killings that have persisted under Aquino III especially as a result of the President’s go-signal to the armed forces to continue with the counter-insurgency program.

The judges’ threat to stage a “revolt” and resign is not just a reaction to poor priorities set in the national budget. It is indicative of dissatisfaction that has started to build up against a wavering and compromising presidential leadership and at slim prospects of seeing reform being undertaken under Aquino III.(CenPEG.org)

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