US-China tensions drive Philippine political opposition

Opposition to the administration of Philippine President Benigno Aquino among rival sections of the ruling elite is deepening and driving a so-called People’s Initiative to end the use of executive and legislative discretionary “pork-barrel” funds.

While the power struggle is ostensibly being fought over the “pork barrel” funds, it stems from deep conflicts inside the Philippine bourgeoisie over Aquino’s provocative role in spearheading the US “pivot to Asia,” amid fears this is jeopardizing economic relations with China. Since Obama’s no-show at regional summits in early October, there have been escalating concerns in the Philippines over the likelihood of a decline in US influence in the region. These concerns have now exploded into an open power struggle.

After winning the 2010 election, Aquino, encouraged by the US, has aggressively asserted Philippine claims in the South China Sea. This has led to repeated armed standoffs in disputed waters with China, diplomatic confrontations at regional summits, and a legal case filed against China at the UN. Manila has said that it will establish “basing arrangements” for US forces in the country.

In return for functioning as a proxy for US interests in the region, Aquino received US financial and military aid. He was also given tacit political support as he waged a concerted drive to consolidate power by attacking his rivals through a variety of corruption scandals.

He first expelled allies of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from leading positions in the military and in the lower house of the legislature. In 2012, Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, a key Arroyo ally, was impeached. As the World Socialist Web Site noted at the time, evidence against Aquino’s opponents was supplied by various US government agencies, and leading US politicians made public statements of support for Aquino’s “anti-corruption” campaign.

In 2012, trade between the Philippines and China, excluding Hong Kong, totaled $12.8 billion or 11.25 percent of total Philippine trade. China is the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner, after Japan and the United States. If the Philippines’ trade with Hong Kong is included in its trade volume with China, China is the Philippines largest trading partner by several billion dollars.

As Manila has pursued a course of deliberately provoking Beijing, diplomatic ties with China have soured, threatening economic relations. Immediately after Manila’s announcement during US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit in August that it would establish basing arrangements for US forces in the country, Beijing took the unprecedented step of rescinding its invitation to Aquino to attend the 10th ASEAN-China Trade Expo.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, head of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) coalition, stated on the day after the announcement that he would oppose the basing of US forces in the Philippines as unconstitutional. Other UNA members followed suit. Aquino responded by filing plunder charges against Enrile and several others for alleged misuse of pork barrel funds.

On September 30, the day before the US government shut down and two days before Obama canceled his visit to the Philippines, a new corruption scandal broke surrounding the alleged misuse of pork barrel funds. This time, it involved the executive Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).

Calls for Aquino’s impeachment were issued by leading opposition political figures within days. At a press briefing on October 3, Aquino, who has firm control over the lower house and the Supreme Court, taunted his rivals: “Go ahead, impeach me.”

When Obama announced that he would not be attending either the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) or the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits, editorials in leading Philippine dailies speculated that this demonstrated that in the event of conflict with China, Washington would not come to the aid of the Philippines.

In the wake of the recent APEC and ASEAN summits, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang traveled throughout Southeast Asia, striking lucrative trade deals and doling out investment. One major country they did not visit was the Philippines.

Large political rallies, some held in the central business district of Makati, formed to denounce “pork.” In a move to circumvent Aquino’s stranglehold over the legislature, the leaders of these rallies have formed a group called the Empowered People’s Initiative and Reform Movement Alliance (EPIRMA).

The Philippine constitution allows the enactment of legislation through a “people’s initiative” requiring that a proposed law be first supported by a petition signed by 12 percent of registered voters, with at least 3 percent support in every legislative district. Such a law would then be voted upon by national referendum.

The leading figures behind EPIRMA are former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Puno, former President Fidel Ramos, and former Senator Joker Arroyo. EPIRMA held a press conference on October 25 in which it stated that the movement was founded “sensing a ‘regional shift of power’ brought by the absence of US President Barack Obama at the recent APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting.”

Their spokesperson stated, “To weather the storm, we need a ship that is sea worthy. Let’s all strengthen our own ship called Republic of the Philippines.”

EPIRMA will hold a congress to draft the proposed law on November 8 and 9 in Cebu City. Former President Ramos will be a leading speaker, slated to present “A Global Perspective.”

Renato Puno stated in an interview on October 30, that the initiative was the “last peaceful alternative for the people.”

A recent survey released by the Philippine Star on Monday revealed a dramatic drop in approval ratings for nearly every major elected official, regardless of affiliation with Aquino or the opposition. Senator Miriam Santiago summed up public sentiment when she said last week that “public esteem for politicians has fallen so low that people want to spit on them.”

The anger manifest in many of the rallies held against “pork” is an expression of a sharp class hostility that is finding expression among large sections of the working masses of the Philippines, particularly the urban working class.

It is this anger that the bourgeoisie is simultaneously attempting to defuse and manipulate to serve their own political ends. Puno explicitly stated on Monday that “the People’s Initiative provision was created primarily to ‘take the people out of the streets.’” Should the initiative fail, the “specter of violence becomes a huge possibility.”

In the event of mass violence, he stated, the military would be compelled to intervene as “protectors of the people” and “new leaders” would be put in place.

The EPIRMA move is accompanied by coup rumblings in sections of the Philippine military. The Association of Generals and Flag Officers (AGFO) and the Philippine Military Academy Alumni Association, both organizations of leading retired officers, have announced support for the move and demanded that the president transfer control of discretionary funds to the national treasury.