POSTSCRIPT / July 30, 1998 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Erap must keep pork barrel or face revolt

THE Philippine government is bankrupt, President Estrada declared last July 27 in his much-awaited state of the nation address before Congress.

In characteristic plain Pilipino, the President painted an extremely grim economic scenario, then concluded: “Sa madaling salita, bangkarote ang gobyerno!” (In short, the government is bankrupt!)

That should stampede all creditors, local and foreign, to come banging at the doors of the Palace to grab whatever they could as the Estrada administration tries to match insufficient funds with gargantuan liabilities.

But no, that’s not happening.

Maybe most people in Manila — including the President himself — do not understand the full implication of a declaration of bankruptcy.

Or maybe most people surmise that the incoming President is just advancing excuses, or exaggerating the problems he had inherited from the outgoing administration so as to make his own subsequent effort look Herculean, if not heroic.

* * *

JUST how bad is it, really?

Okay, make the sign of the cross, then listen to these horror stories:

  • Total outstanding public sector debt stands at P2.3 trillion (that’s right, trillion!).
  • Debt service ate 25 percent of the 1997 national budget. In the first semester this year, P26.4 billion went to debt service.
  • A P70-billion budget deficit is expected at yearend.
  • Customs and internal revenue collections, the two biggest sources of government funds, have been below target.
  • At least 4.3 million Filipinos, or some 13.3 percent of the work force, are jobless, while 20 percent are underemployed. Since May, 62,000 workers have lost their jobs. In the provinces, 40 percent of Filipinos work for only a third of wages in the city.
  • More than 30 percent of households still don’t have electricity. Even in Metro Manila, brownouts are a recurring irritation.
  • During the Ramos administration, the richest 10 percent of Filipinos took 40 percent of the national income. The poorest 10 percent got less than 2 percent.
  • Mr. Ramos blew P4.6 billion for the centennial celebration, while the social welfare department was begging — in vain — for P100 million in emergency food aid for drought victims in Mindanao.
  • We’ve been going through the motions of agrarian reform for 26 years, yet only 57 percent of target land areas have been distributed.
  • Production of rice, the main staple, is down by 14 percent. Expecting the usual mega-importation of rice, the “commissioners” in government cereal agencies are already salivating.
  • The education department is able to provide only one book for every four students. Despite the constitutional mandate for free and compulsory elementary education, out-of-school-youths roam city streets.
  • At least 40 percent of the P55-billion for pork barrel projects goes to the pockets of grafters.
  • The peso is trading at P42 to the US dollar and may even go lower if the Japanese yen fails to bounce back. Prices are rising and real wages slipping.

* * *

HOW do we get out of this mess?

Some Filipinos hie off to the States and other pastures thought to be greener. But what about those who cannot wangle a US visa?

Some 10 million Filipinos who are stuck here took a gamble last May and chose Joseph “Erap” Estrada to lead them out of the darkness.

But can this mumbling movie star who dropped an engineering course after only two years at Mapua do it? The social elite, the intelligentsia (kuno) and much of media sound like they have doubts.

What does this long-time observer of the local scene think? As I see it, if the arrogant media would just give Mr. Estrada a chance, he may yet pull a miracle.

One big problem (aside from lack of funds) is that many of the mainstream media representing vested interests appear bent on proving what they had said during the poll campaign, which is that Mr. Estrada is not fit for the presidency.

What they actually mean is that he does not have the pedigree that the media, thinking highly of themselves, require of anybody who presumes to be their president.

What Mr. Estrada should try his best to do is to whip up his 10-million-vote mandate into an unstoppable wave that will carry him above and beyond the minority, yet noisy, nitpickers in media.

While he continues to try massaging the established media for understanding, and possibly cooperation, he should develop other channels — there are many possibilities — for reaching out to the larger constituency in the countryside.

* * *

ONE of the measures that Mr. Estrada reiterated in his address is the abolition of pork barrel, that bulging chest of taxpayers’ money waiting to be stolen by the millions.

The money is hidden in number-coded items scattered all over the minutiae of the national budget. Only those who placed them there know where they are.

This observer does not believe that Mr. Estrada will abolish pork barrel. The President needs Congress and he cannot afford to antagonize congressmen by denying them the millions that they expected to lay their hands on when they ran for Congress.

If Malacañang insists on cutting off the fat and the newly installed Speaker Manuel Villar is unable to save it, he could have a revolt in his hands. If Mr. Estrada wants Villar to stay, he has to help him feed the crocodiles in Congress.

Most likely, Mr. Estrada will keep a leaner pork barrel, but he will call it something else.

* * *

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