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Slush funds for elections? It's the Filipino way

An imposing building on a frenetic boulevard in Manila houses the Sandiganbayan, a court that tries cases of corruption. Inside, a notice politely requests visitors to "please deposit your firearms".

Outside, three women were sweeping the street yesterday, wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the words "Vote Gloria President".

The women are part of an army of workers given temporary jobs by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is seeking re-election in next Monday's presidential poll. Her rivals are furious about her blatant use of public funds to boost her campaign. But most ordinary people shrug their shoulders. "That's how we do things in the Philippines," an office worker said yesterday.

Mrs Arroyo is ahead in the polls after raiding the public coffers to pay for billboards and newspaper advertisements extolling her achievements. To woo poor voters who support her main challenger, Ferdinand Poe, a former film star, she has given free health insurance and spent £13m creating jobs.

While her actions are technically legal, more serious allegations have been levelled against her husband, Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, known as the First Gentleman. Mr Arroyo is accused of shady dealings relating to contracts for infrastructure projects, including a five kilometre (three-mile) stretch of highway that cost £8m per kilometre. Mr Arroyo, whose official role is presidential photographer, has a finger in many pies. "He has the makings of a second Marcos," said John Villamur, a zoology student.

Eighteen years after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, recently rated the world's second most corrupt leader (after Indonesia's President Suharto), the Philippines remains riddled with corruption.

A World Bank study estimated that 40 per cent of the national budget ends up in the pockets of officials. "Every administration since Marcos has been corrupt," Joel Rocamora, head of the Institute for Popular Democracy, said. "The only difference is the scale with which it hides the corruption." In a reference to Mrs Arroyo's predecessor, who was toppled by street protests fuelled by anger at wholesale plunder of the public purse, he said: "Joseph Estrada's mistake was that he didn't work very hard at hiding it."

The election campaign has been characterised by rampant vote-buying, particularly in the provinces, where local politicians are generously rewarded for delivering their constituents' votes. "We have the best electoral system that money can buy," Mr Rocamora said.

An anti-corruption watchdog, the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism, recently produced a do-it-yourself guide to investigating suspect public officials. Snoop around near their houses, it advises, and count their cars, boats and bodyguards. Follow their wives and mistresses to the shopping centre and check the price tags of items they buy.

Sheila Coronel, the centre's director, said she published the guide because of the volume of complaints. She added, wearily: "We can't possibly investigate them all ourselves."

None of the presidential candidates is regarded as whiter than white. Eddie Gil, who promised to use his personal fortune to eliminate the national debt, was caught trying to sneak out of a hotel via the kitchen to avoid paying for a banquet for his supporters.

Hopes of changing a system designed to keep political and economic power in the hands of a wealthy élite seem slim. A few hundred families are estimated to control 95 per cent of the wealth. The economy has become one of the worst in Asia.

Manila's new international airport is empty, its furnishings rotting, because of a scandal over contracts. "It's a nightmare doing business here," a British expatriate said. "In the Philippines, they've made corruption into a science."

Efforts by Mrs Arroyo to reform such institutions as the Bureau of Internal Revenue have been blocked by vested interests. "At least under Marcos there was only one person robbing us blind," said Mr Villamur. "Now it's everyone, from the top brass to the grass roots." One diplomat summed it up: "In Indonesia, corruption is under the table. In Malaysia, it's over the table. In the Philippines, it includes the table."