The election season starts

Marvin A. Tort

Posted on May 14, 2015

Boxing champion Manny D. Pacquiao flew back to town yesterday just as the Court of Appeals was reported to have ordered a temporary freeze order on the bank deposits of Vice-President Jejomar C. Binay. The freeze order reportedly covered also the bank deposits of Binay family members as well as of the Vice-President’s supposed business associates.

Manny Pacquiao drops by Malacañang Palace yesterday for a courtesy call. -- Chari Rose T. Villegas
Mr. Pacquiao’s arrival from the United States, and the public release of the CA’s May 11 freeze order on Wednesday, were on the heels of Tuesday’s news report that P670 million in pork barrel funds allocated for Muslim communities went to allegedly questionable Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in 2011-2013.

The Commission on Audit (COA) uncovered the anomaly and linked 49 lawmakers to it, including one detained senator, one sitting senator, and 47 members of the House of Representatives that included one former Deputy House Speaker. The COA report prompted the Palace to vow yesterday the investigation and prosecution even of its allies in Congress.

The Commission on Elections is still to bid out a new contract for the supply of vote-counting machines for 2016, and prospective candidates have yet to file their candidacies, and already the “election season” has obviously started. What else are people to make of these latest news reports if not not-so-subtle attempts to influence public thinking?

The CA freeze order, requested by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), reportedly covered 242 banks, securities, and insurance accounts of the Binays, with over P600 million linked solely to the VP. It is uncanny that the amount involved is very similar to the amount of allegedly questionable pork barrel disbursed to Muslims, as reported by COA for 2011-2013.

Everybody knows the VP seeks to run for the presidency in 2016, while his son and namesake, presently the mayor of the City of Makati, is rumored to be running for senator. A Binay daughter was already elected senator in 2013. Meanwhile, the COA report on the new pork barrel anomaly included lawmakers who are also running in 2016.

There can be no doubt that both issues -- the COA report and CA freeze order -- are directly connected to the 2016 polls. But the timing of their public release became more curious after the House committee deliberating the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) decided last Monday to postpone the vote on the bill by a week.

It is likewise curious that the most recent COA report covered public funds that were directed to projects for Muslim communities in 2011-2013. In particular, the report looked into funds released by lawmakers through the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos to allegedly questionable NGOs and suppliers.

On the BBL, some lawmakers claim the vote was delayed to allow Palace allies more time to regroup and counter opposition to the bill. This then begs the question, in my opinion: How many congressmen voting on the bill are on the latest COA “pork barrel” list? Also, how many of these listed lawmakers are seeking election in 2016?

As for the CA freeze order, this has an obvious “chilling effect” on lawmakers and local officials who will refuse to play ball with the Palace on the proposed BBL. After all, the CA basis for ordering the freeze -- although temporary -- was simply the alleged “mismatch” in VP Binay’s alleged assets and his declarations in his Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs).

Using the same approach -- an analysis of banking, securities, and insurance assets as well as titled properties vis-à-vis declarations in SALNs -- one is almost certain that not all public officials can escape further scrutiny if not a similar freeze order from the court. And it doesn’t seem like a bank secrecy waiver is necessary as the AMLC seemingly enjoys full access.

Even just a six-month freeze is enough to jeopardize one’s campaign financing, especially if the freeze order also covers political allies and potential financiers -- like in the case of VP Binay. Rarely do politicians use their own money for campaign finance. However, a freeze order can put a damper particularly on initial funding.

Moreover, the “chilling effect” tends to extend even to potential financiers. Simply put, if the administration can exercise power, authority and political will to use its resources and the judicial system to freeze the assets of a sitting vice-president, how then can a “lowly” opposition politician and his allies stand a chance against it?

Or perhaps I am just reading too much into these three seemingly unrelated issues -- the COA report on the pork barrel, the CA freeze order on Binay assets, and the delayed voting on the BBL -- that are independent of each other? Might as well add to the list the ongoing Senate inquiry into the affairs of the Pag-IBIG Fund?

Only Manny Pacquiao’s homecoming appears to be truly independent of all political or election-related issues this week. But with his decision to hold his homecoming press conference and parade yesterday in Makati City -- the political bailiwick of the Binays -- one cannot be entirely sure.

Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council