Ten steps forward, eleven steps backward
By Gina Mission

i2.gif (932 bytes)t’s back to square negative one. This is the consensus of the members of some 3,000 civil society organizations (CSOs) whose representatives met recently to discuss the gains and losses of civil society advocacy work during the first year of the Estrada administration.

___In fairness, the groups did acknowledge some promising developments. The Philippine economy has been able to withstand the Asian economic crisis. Hilario Davide, whom CSO members regard as "progressive," was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Horacio Morales and Karina David were appointed to the top positions of the Department of Agrarian Reform, and the Housing and Urban Development Council, respectively. And recently, the Clean Air Act was passed.

___These gains, however, have not "offset" the many losses, which, the CSO members said, the Estrada administration has brought to the country. For as they said, "iI’s back to nothing, and even lower, if that is possible at all."

___"He is reversing the gains of democracy, of civil society," said Dinky Soliman, CO-Train Executive Director, referring to President Estrada. Some of these reversals, she said, are so explosive that one begins to wonder if we Filipinos are actually in for a six-year movie.

___"Civil society can no longer sit back and just watch everything happen," said Code-NGO Chair Dan Songco. The groups agreed that civil society has to take on the challenge of communicating to the majority who put the president in Malacaņang, the "facts" about this phenomenon called Joseph Estrada. And they must communicate in a way that they will not dismiss such facts as another case of "middle class angst." For, as Songco said, even if the majority think it is right, the minority should still be heard because the majority is not always right.

___One major disappointment with the present administration, as openly criticized by the National Peace Conference (NPC), is that "fundamental issues of poverty and democratization continue to face serious challenges."

___This is evident, according to NPC Vice National Chair Ging Deles, with the way the National Anti-Poverty Commission has been constituted, and more recently, the way the government has tried to address poverty alleviation through its "new-millennium KKK, or Katipunang Kontra Kahirapan" which, has been dismissed by many as just plain bingo.

___Past incidents, said Songco, have also shown that "the poor have not been made an integral part in the decision-making process" despite the tremendous efforts they have taken to stake their claim to it. He cited the case of Metro Manila teachers demanding for their amelioration pay of P7,000 each, which was denied, with no less than President Joseph Estrada himself appealing to them to sacrifice for the nation. Another case is the suspension of the collective bargaining agreement at Philippine Airlines for 10 years which, Songco said, "signaled a scary scenario for the rest of the labor sector."

___And consistent with the President’s "belt-tightening" measure, when the labor sector demanded for higher wages and fairer labor practices on this year’s Labor Day, President Estrada said they were asking for "too much" and told them to "work harder and sacrifice more" instead.

___"No sound social and structural reforms have been instituted to address inequity. Rather, the poor are seen as a charity case," said the group in a statement. A case in point is the former Presidential Action Center, which had the poor queuing for money and baskets of groceries at Malacaņang’s Gate 7 until two people died in a stampede. Also, the government has instituted and legitimized gambling, justifying the move as a way "to rob the rich to give to the poor." The group assailed this approach as "patronage and welfarist" and disempowers the poor, a misinterpretation of "social reform."

___On another level are the "vested interests and enemies of democracy" which the group said undermined the present administration’s pro-poor pronouncements. The Marcoses are back in power, and so is Danding Cojuangco and his and his move to control the coco levy fund. Lucio Tan’s tax evasion case has been dismissed while super-crony Mark Jimenez has brokered several multi-million peso deals on behalf of the unknowing Filipino people.

___Bribery and corruption are having their heyday as evidenced by the P3 M textbook scam, the "diversion" of a P200 M Motorola contract for hand-held radios to a firm allegedly run by a high government official, the P31.6B sale of PCIBank’s controlling interest to Equitable Bank using funds from the Social Security System and the Government Service Insurance System, and the P160M win of Mark Jimenez at a government-run casino under suspicious circumstances.

___Cronyism, the group said, is back as a "free-for-all," mostly for those who can pull the strongest strings. Some such cases are the controversial creation of Maglanco Development Council and the Petrochemical and Plastic Mobilization Task Force, which, the group said, exposed the practice of "influential officials going straight to the President to ask for his signature on vital documents."

___Meanwhile, legislated measures for structural reforms have taken a back seat. Land distribution for the past year registered the lowest accomplishment in the last five years despite the President’s repeated pronouncements about achieving food security and the completion of agrarian reform within the next five years. The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act has been practically halted with the freezing of its funds and the continuing confusion within the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, due to unfortunate presidential appointments to crucial positions, as well as the harassment of its present commissioners .

___In addition, squabbles among key bureaucrats have paralyzed the government, such as the drug scandal involving the PNP’s Panfilo Lacson and Roberto Lastimoso, the leadership crisis in the agriculture department involving William Dar and Edgardo Angara, the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority leadership squabble between Richard Gordon and Felicito Payumo, among others.

___"Incoherent and contradicting decisions and policy pronouncements have given the impression that the leadership is fickle-minded and not in control," the group said in their statement. As an example, they cited the case of the President’s declaration of "walang kamag-kamag-anak, walang kaibigan" (no cronysim) vis-a-vis the appointment of Presidential cousin and Presidential Consultant for Barangays Celia de Castro, who was linked to the P400M textbook scam.

___With the way events are taking place, the group believes that the lack of a focused leadership and a coherent agenda for national development have provided a "fertile ground for this kind of corruption and cronyism to grow."

___As things look at present, there is a wide and open space for what the group called the "mad scramble for wealth and power," the consequent drift and confusion which could soon lead to the "disintegration of our bureaucracy." The appointment of some members of civil society to government, the group admitted, has even caused divisions in their stand insofar as the administration’s performance is concerned.

___For civil society, the implications of this scenario are frightening. As they aptly put it, "In a situation where the balance of wealth and power is determined arbitrarily, how could the poor have a fighting chance?"

CyberDyaryo | 1999.07.22