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MANILA, Philippines – The issue of Vice President Sara Duterte’s use of confidential funds (CF) continues to hound her a little over a year into her term.
While the Duterte-allied Congress skipped scrutinizing the Vice President’s use of CF, she couldn’t escape being excoriated by critics who grilled her on how and why she spent the P125 million confidential funds which, according to budget experts, was “unconstitutionally” obtained.
Only two lawmakers have strongly criticized Duterte – opposition members Senator Risa Hontiveros and ACT Teachers Representative France Castro – but the public, maximizing the space afforded by social media, openly expressed their indignation. Instead of focusing on more urgent issues at the Department of Education, which Duterte leads in a concurrent capacity, she chose to preoccupy herself with confidential funds at the Office of the Vice President (OVP).
Unable to explain how confidential funds were used in 2022 when no line item for them existed in the previous budget, Duterte resorted to ad hominem attacks in a desperate attempt to veer attention away from the issue. It was evident, however, that Duterte attacked only her female critics, sparing the two former Senate presidents, Franklin Drilon and Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, who both said the transfer of confidential funds from the Office of the President to the OVP was unconstitutional. (READ: OP violated Constitution in transfer of P125-M confidential funds to OVP – Drilon)
After hurdling two budget panels in the House and the Senate, Duterte released a statement on September 11, thanking the officials of the Marcos administration for backing her use of CF. In the same statement, she singled out her female critics Hontiveros and Castro.
“These efforts are genuinely appreciated because they help counter the lies told by [Representative] France Castro and the Makabayan bloc in Congress on the 2022 OVP CF (Office of the Vice President confidential funds). Senator Risa Hontiveros, while she amuses the nation with her flair for drama, could only wish the 2022 OVP CF was accessed illegally,” Duterte said.
Hontiveros clapped back at her, “No drama, just work. I thought you said the OVP can live without confidential funds? Why do you seem so nervous, when this is just a budget hearing?”
The word war didn’t stop there. Duterte said she does not respect the two female lawmakers that’s why she singled them out in her statement: “Because I do not respect Ms. Castro and Ms. Hontiveros. I have no respect for them.”
In response, Hontiveros retorted: “I’m not asking for your respect, VP Sara. What I and the public are asking from you is accountability. So just account for the confidential funds that you’re asking for.”
It was in early July that the Commission on Audit report on the OVP was released, and up until now there has been no clear explanation from Duterte how her office used the P125 million in CF. What she told the public was that the confidential funds were used for “safe, secure, and successful implementations of the programs and projects and activities of the OVP.”
Political analyst and University of the Philippines professor Ela Atienza said that Duterte engaging in a word war and trying to dodge explaining her CF only showed that she wasn’t ready to be criticized nor questioned.
“In Davao, she’s spoiled. In Davao, there’s a group of people protecting her, they answer for her. They run the city hall for her. She is very defensive because she’s not used to being criticized. She usually has other people answering for her but this is the national stage,” Atienza said.
She provided little to no answers to the questions, and merely passed them on to her staff for them to respond to during congressional budget deliberations.
Atienza said that Duterte hit Hontiveros because she perceived the senator as a threat.
“The highest ranking opposition now is Risa. But the point is, [Duterte] has to show that she knows something, at lumalabas napakapikon niya, ‘di ba? (and, she appears to be very touchy, right?) It’s very unprofessional. Hindi natin masabi kasi very effective ‘yung tatay niya kasi lalaki (We can’t tell because her father was very effective because he was male). There’s this principle that a man can always get away with this, but she is a woman. Let’s see if there’s a gender factor that people will continue to support her because she’s a Duterte or because she is a female Duterte. Will the people see her differently, particularly in terms of looking at her being a woman?” she asked.
Pollster Social Weather Stations released a survey in June and showed that Duterte was the “best leader to succeed President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in 2028.” Duterte got 28%, Senator Raffy Tulfo was second with 11%, and former vice president Leni Robredo got 6%.
Hontiveros, meanwhile, was the lone opposition member to win a Senate seat in 2022, ranking her 11th among 63 candidates. A year into her term, she has been consistent in challenging the administration’s policies and legislation.
According to the June 2023 survey of the Institute of Popular Opinion of the University of Mindanao, Hontiveros was Davao City’s most trusted senator. Davao City is the hometown of Duterte.
Atienza said that with the survey showing Duterte as front-runner, she could really be the target of attacks. While no trust rating surveys have been released yet after the CF fiasco broke, it would be interesting to see whether or not there would be a significant change in Duterte’s approval ratings.
A Pulse Asia survey taken in mid-March 2023 showed that Sara Duterte had the highest approval rating (83%), followed by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. with 78%.
“Titingnan natin kung may epekto ito sa popularity ratings, but the point is lumabas na kasi, napakaagang lumabas na front-runner siya. So, talagang siya magiging target ng marami,” Atienza said. (We will see if there will be effects on her popularity ratings, but the point is, she really emerged as an early front-runner.)
The political analyst cited the case of former vice president Jejomar Binay, who had been leading the surveys to succeed then-president Benigno Aquino III. But Binay got entangled with controversies leading up to the 2016 presidential polls.
In March 2014, over two years before the 2016 polls, Binay was seen as a runaway winner with 40% selecting him as their first choice for president. In comparison, according to a Pulse Asia survey released back then, candidate Manuel “Mar” Roxas II rated 6% at the time, just a notch higher than then-senator Bongbong Marcos who got 5%. Voter preference for Binay started to drop in September 2014 amid a string of corruption allegations hurled against him in relation to the overpriced Makati City Hall Building II.
In 2015, Binay, who used to be the country’s most trusted and appreciated public official, saw an 18-percentage point drop in his trust ratings – 39% in September 2015 from 57% in June 2015, according to Pulse Asia.
Until June 2015, Binay topped presidential surveys but the corruption controversy brought down his numbers. In the September 2016 Pulse Asia survey, he was behind independent Senator Grace Poe (26%) and Liberal Party standard-bearer Mar Roxas (19%). Binay recovered briefly in 2016, and even tied with Poe for the top spot. But in May 2016, the presidency turned out to be elusive for him. Then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte won with over 16 million votes, followed by Roxas (9.98 million), Poe (9.1 million), and Binay (5.4 million).
Binay and Sara Duterte are similar yet different in the sense that, they both indicated their intention to seek the presidency during the early years of their term. But while Binay had to face controversies mid-term, Sara already had to grapple with them in her first year of office.
Sociologist Jayeel Cornelio said that while Sara enjoys tremendous popularity while reaping the benefits of the Duterte brand, she cannot escape public scrutiny when it comes to issues of corruption.
“We’ve seen in the past years how specific critics were targeted mainly because they were alone or isolated. But if the critique comes from a wider public and gains the attention of national media, even Sara cannot dismiss it. The Vice President cannot behave without being accountable. At the same time, it also shows how the public is sensitive when it comes to issues of corruption. National politicians in this country are vulnerable when it comes to suspicion of corruption,” he said.
The next presidential elections are still five years away. Political observers have said that a lot of things can happen in five years. Will the recent fiasco involving the Vice President turn the tide against her or will the Duterte brand be strong enough to withstand it? – Rappler.com