Why It Took a Superstorm to Expose the Seedy Underbelly of Philippine Politics

More than a week after Super Typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 4,000 people and displaced another 4 million, relief efforts remain hampered by poor roadways, congested airports, and a host of other logistical nightmares. While the Red Cross says they have more than enough emergency supplies for devastated regions, the government’s slow response and a lack ...

Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images
Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

More than a week after Super Typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 4,000 people and displaced another 4 million, relief efforts remain hampered by poor roadways, congested airports, and a host of other logistical nightmares. While the Red Cross says they have more than enough emergency supplies for devastated regions, the government’s slow response and a lack of infrastructure have made it difficult to quickly reach affected areas. But what dry goods have been dispersed by the national government are being frequently diverted by local politicians who waste valuable hours or even days repackaging relief items to bear their names, campaign slogans, or party colors. It all adds up to an ugly introduction to the personality-centered world of Philippine politics, one marked by feuding dynasties, rampant cronyism, and, above all, dysfunction.

The storm struck just as some of the country’s uglier political practices were being exposed — and with the spotlight on the Philippines in the aftermath of the storm, those practices have become impossible to ignore. An unfolding corruption scandal that began in July implicated 18 senators in the misuse or embezzlement of at least $25.5 million, money that had been intended for local development projects. Another exposed 97 local officials who plundered up to $20 million earmarked for relief and rehabilitation efforts following the 2009 typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which also killed thousands. Now, in Haiyan’s wake, many worry that relief funds will, again, end up padding the pockets of shameless politicians. Churches and civil society groups have been quick to point out that the sheer scope of the devastation — exacerbated by substandard housing and woefully undeveloped disaster response systems — is evidence of endemic political pilfering.

Rev. Rex Reyes, the president of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, argues that the devastation wrought by Haiyan is not just a failure of planning, but a failure of priorities. "Instead of pocketing all that money," he told Foreign Policy of the millions stolen from government coffers, "it should have been used to produce a comprehensive plan to build this infrastructure and help us to be more resistant to these kinds of disasters…Those funds should have preserved."

Adding insult to injury, much of the destruction was concentrated in Leyte, an island ruled by the family of Imelda Marcos, the widow of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a man who fell from grace after amassing a $10 billion fortune during his two decades in office. Thirty years after Marcos was deposed from power, the legacy of his rule is still being felt amid the devastation of Haiyan. With close ties to Marcos’ descendants, the Romualdez family, one of the richest and most influential political dynasties in the Philippines, now call the shots on Leyte. The results have been about what you’d expect from a family intimately acquainted with the dark side of Philippine politics. At least seven of Imelda Marcos’ relatives hold political office, including Alfred Romualdez, the much-publicized mayor of Tacloban City who from inside his marble mansion spoke with Anderson Cooper about the storm’s destruction. Romualdez’s father, Bejo — who preceded him as the mayor of Tacloban — has for the past decade been the target of a corruption investigation by the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which has long sought to confiscate money and properties that it suspects were unlawfully acquired during the Marcos regime. Romualdez’s aunt, Juliet, is one of the 50 richest people in the country, with a net worth of $165 million. Meanwhile, his cousin, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.,the son of the late dictator, is a senator. Another cousin, Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, is the single wealthiest congressman in the region.

Given the reach of and resources available to Leyte’s ruling family, the Romualdezes have been roundly criticized for not doing more to coordinate relief efforts and to restore order to the region. The typhoon, coming on the heels of an unfolding corruption scandal, has also cast into high relief the disparity between rich and poor, between the political elite and their beleaguered constituents.

"There is money in this country, but that money is going into the pockets of politicians and their friends," said Luis Teodoro, the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom. "The impact is very negative, and part of that is this disaster response."

"The military is supposed to be modernizing but it doesn’t have communication facilities," he told Foreign Policy. "It doesn’t have planes to deliver supplies," while decisions rest in the hands of political clans who are "complacent about staying power." In an op-ed published in the days after Haiyan, Teodoro argued that the aftermath of this disaster "should result in Filipino awareness of the fatal consequences of keeping in power the same families," which are "of no earthly use during emergencies except to wait them out in their luxurious Metro Manila homes or in the capital’s five-star hotels."

Concern over corruption has now spilled abroad, with potential donors wary of giving to disaster relief lest their donations be "waylaid" by politicians. Given the renewed focus on corruption and widespread public concern over the integrity of relief funds, Philippine legislators moved this week to abolish discretionary funding pots and called for new mechanisms to safeguard those meant for disaster relief. On Monday, the government launched a transparency website that tracks the source and destination of aid. President Benigno Aquino III, whose campaign slogan was "without corruption, there is no poverty," has repeatedly restated his commitment to clean government.

Senate President Franklin Drilon, who is also implicated in a corruption scam, told Foreign Policy that, under Aquino’s leadership, the Philippines is undergoing "a cleansing process." He characterized the recent scandals as the natural growing pains of a democracy.

Yet, neither corruption — nor the backlash against it — are new developments within Philippine politics. Every president since Marcos has run on an anti-corruption platform, and every president since has been implicated in a corruption scandal.
For decades, concerns over bribery, graft, and malfeasance have dominated political discourse in the Philippines, with little long-term effect.

And even if recent efforts to curb corruption are successful, it could have unforeseen consequences. Mark Thompson, the director of the Southeast Asia Research Center, notes that discretionary funding plays a critical role in Philippine politics.

"The Philippine system has weak political parties," he told Foreign Policy, "and without strong political parties or idealism, how can you get things done? Aquino was able to push through a number of measures when he was first elected, but he was able to do it through patronage resources. If you take away that patronage and put it into this bureaucratic funding, there may be some gains in infrastructure but it may make the system less manageable and it might create problems of governability."

As Aquino struggles to manage relief efforts amidst bad press and falling approval ratings, patronage politics-as-usual might be an expedient, if unpopular, way to get things done. In the meantime, his response has underscored his own political dynasty’s rivalries. Following the typhoon, Aquino was quick to lay blame for the destruction at Mayor Romualdez’s feet. It’s a move that, according to experts, may have more to do with bad blood than any real assessment of disaster preparedness. The families have been at odds with one another since the 1980s, when the Aquinos took the presidency from Marcos. But an attempt to score political points amidst a major humanitarian crisis is hardly a shock.

Typhoon survivors are already receiving relief goods emblazoned with politicians’ faces. 

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