"Not six months, not six years."
The people of this country did not know how to react to the “I will eradicate drugs, corruption, and crime” declaration that presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte made four years ago during the course of the 2016 campaign. They did not know whether they should laugh at Mr. Duterte or take him seriously. Here was a former city mayor, prosecutor, and member of the House of Representatives making to the nation a promise that was outrageous and patently unrealizable.
Four years later, they have come full circle. A few weeks ago, President Rodrigo Duterte admitted to the nation that he had given up trying to eradicate corruption and that he was considering resigning from the presidency. Two stunning declarations, made four years apart: The first saying that he thought he could eradicate corruption and would try to do the job in quick order, and the second saying that he was giving up because he had come to the realization that, four years later, the job could not be done.
Duterte got his first taste of governmental corruption very early in his presidency. Hardly had they warmed their seats at the Bureau of Immigration than two deputy commissioners were charged with extorting P50 million from an about-to-be-deported honcho of the illegal drugs trade. That scandal was followed in quick succession by others at the Bureau of Customs, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Bureau of Corrections, and other front-line government agencies.
Corruption now seems to be all over the place. The nation’s civil servants seem unafraid of President Duterte’s rants about corruption. The air is more than full of whiffs of wrongdoing – what the Chief Executive has said would cause him to quickly fire scoundrels in government – and cases are piling up at the Office of the Ombudsman.
By far, the greatest blow sustained by Mr. Duterte’s corruption-eradication effort has been that delivered by the scandal at the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, which is the implementing institution for the Universal Health Care Act. The PhilHealth mess is one of the worst in the history of Philippine corruption; it involves tens of billions of pesos.
Until his removal, PhilHealth was headed by one of President Duterte’s favorite nominees for high government offices – newly retired military and police generals. Several dozen PhilHealth officials have been recommended for prosecution by a Department of Justice task force.
PhilHealth will not be the last corruption scandal that will hit the Duterte administration. There are likely to be several more.
Given the history, culture, and governance structure of this country, eradicating corruption can, with the consistent exercise of political will, be accomplished. But a six-month time frame is out of the question. Mr. Duterte’s experience has shown that six years would be problematic and may be insufficient.
For the Filipino people, the Constitutional precept of separation of powers has meant separation of corruption. They see corruption not only in the Executive Department but also in the Legislature – the haggling and cheating over budgetary pork is a prime example – and crooked judges continue to be the bane of the Judiciary’s existence.
The huge problem that is corruption is the result of many causes. Some of the causes are deeply ingrained; others are easily avoidable.
For starters, President Duterte can stop issuing statements like “He (or she) still enjoys my trust” in those instances when a public official has clearly been corrupt, incompetent or criminally negligent. Then, there is the practice of simply transferring a manifestly corrupt official from one position to another when that official comes under fire. The case of former military officer Nicanor Faeldon is an excellent case in point. And there is also the practice of appointing newly retired generals and colonels to choice government posts. The Chief Executive should appoint men and women with track records of honesty and competence, preferably career officials, who have proven themselves.
Eradicating corruption in this country may not be a six-year undertaking. Definitely, it is not a six-month effort.