More big fish to fry

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2007, 12:00am

Congratulations to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, after her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, was sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption. Having made fighting top-level fraud a priority of her presidency, the case serves as the highest-level proof since she took office 5? years ago that she means business.

There have been other cases, of course; that they generally involve names and faces that people are unfamiliar with has been unfortunate, given the all-pervasive nature of corruption at every level of Philippine society. Now that a big fish has been fried and Mrs Arroyo has chalked up a significant victory in her war on graft, the message of zero tolerance is loud and clear.

Of course, her fight cannot end with Estrada. This is a country where a banknote placed in the hand of the police officer who has just booked you for speeding will erase all memory of a traffic offence; where prisoners vanish from their cells because money has changed hands with the guards; where people often run for public office not out of a sense of civic duty, but because they know they can get rich from bribes.

Such institutionalised practices are obviously not good for the reputation of a nation that could do with foreign investment to kick-start the economy. Mrs Arroyo realises that clean government projects the right image, hence her anti-corruption drive.

Estrada's conviction - assuming it sticks - is welcomed by the Arroyo administration because of the criticism from inside and outside the country that the policy is little more than hot air. Non-governmental corruption watchdog Transparency International has been particularly critical. It said, in a study issued in February, that 'although the government advocates zero tolerance for corruption and follows best practice by adopting a three-pronged approach against it through promotion, prevention and enforcement, a lack of compliance and implementation on the side of the public and a lack of prosecutions, convictions and enforcement on the side of the authorities persists'. In the organisation's last annual Corruption Perceptions Index, the Philippines was ranked 121 out of 159 countries.

Turning around centuries of such practice will not happen quickly. Former first lady Imelda Marcos has been convicted of only one of the dozens of graft charges she faces and, under Estrada's presidency, was pardoned on the grounds of being too old for prison. She is accused of being an accomplice with her dictator husband, Ferdinand, of embezzling up to US$20 billion from public coffers, yet remains the nation's foremost socialite.

But all is not lost for Mrs Arroyo. She now has a golden opportunity to continue the impetus afforded by the Estrada ruling to constructively deal with the many corruption cases levelled against her family, government and associates. Although several involve considerably more public money than Estrada was accused of stealing, none has been resolved.

The list is too long to reprint; some have been the subject of two failed impeachment motions against the president, but the opposition is planning a third attempt. Among them are a US$25 million election computerisation scheme that has never been rolled out; a US$140 million government fertiliser fund allegedly distributed to Mrs Arroyo's allies during the 2004 presidential election; a 32km rail line that, it is claimed, is being built at a cost of US$16 million per kilometre; the mothballing of Terminal 3 at the main international airport over a payment dispute; and a scandal over purported payments from the game of chance, jueteng - similar to the claims that brought down Estrada.

Philippine governments are judged not by what they have achieved, but how corrupt they were. The graft cases swirling around the Arroyo government clearly put it on track as, potentially, the most corrupt since Marcos fell in 1986. And, unlike Mrs Arroyo, Marcos never claimed to be a graft-buster.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor