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Aquino Defends Stimulus, Braces for Top Court Showdown

Philippine President Benigno Aquino
Benigno Aquino, the Philippines' president. Photographer: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg

July 15 (Bloomberg) -- Philippine President Benigno Aquino vowed to fight a judicial ruling that voided a stimulus program he said benefited people and boosted the economy, bracing for a showdown with the nation’s top court.

“We did not transgress the law when we implemented the Disbursement Acceleration Program,” Aquino said in a 24-minute televised speech late yesterday from the presidential palace in Manila. “We do not want two equal branches of government to go head to head, needing a third branch to step in to intervene.”

His comments came after two polls yesterday showed the president’s popularity fell to record lows amid an outcry over the 144.4 billion-peso ($3.3 billion) program, known as DAP. The furor threatens Aquino’s anti-corruption credentials, while any block on spending may thwart the expansion of an economy that grew 7.2 percent last year, the fastest in Asia after China.

“We have entered a political crisis, and the question is who will win,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, said by telephone. “The crisis could create cracks in his coalition. His allies thought he had Teflon-like popularity. That was broken.”

The Philippine Stock Exchange Index fell 1 percent in Manila yesterday, the biggest drop since May 29, after the release of the opinion polls.

‘Properly’ Allocated

The stimulus plan approved in 2011 fast-tracked infrastructure spending in the three years through 2013 and gave perks to some lawmakers. The Supreme Court on July 1 voided parts of the program, months after stripping lawmakers of their discretionary budget power.

“DAP follows the law and adheres to the mandate granted to the executive branch,” Aquino said in his speech. “We did this to properly allocate funds, and by so doing maximize the benefits that the people may receive,” he said, adding that it benefited education and electrification, while helping an economy that was suffering from public underspending.

Aquino’s net satisfaction rating slumped by almost half to +25 in a Social Weather Stations survey conducted from June 27 to June 30, down from +45 in its previous poll in March, the company said on its website yesterday. His approval rating slid to 56 percent and his trust rating to 53 percent from 70 percent and 69 percent respectively in March, according to a separate survey by Pulse Asia Research Inc. conducted from June 24 to July 2.

‘DAP Is Good’

“DAP is good,” Aquino said. “Our intentions, our processes, and the results were correct,” he said, adding that the funds were used “for the benefit of Filipinos. And not for later, not soon, but now.”

The president said his government would appeal the decision so the high court can “more fully and more conscientiously examine the law.” He also said he would seek a supplemental budget from Congress to ensure that all benefits are delivered.

“The supplemental budget should alleviate growing market concerns that there is a risk of inadvertent fiscal tightening that could slow growth,” said Euben Paracuelles, a Singapore-based economist at Nomura Holdings Inc.

Aquino pledged to stamp out pork-barrel budgets in August after thousands turned to social media to criticize the system. Civic groups took to the streets on June 12 to seek the removal of politicians embroiled in the scandal.

Corruption

Aquino ran for president and won in 2010 with a pledge to rid the country of its image as one of the most corrupt in Asia. Ranked 134th out of 178 nations and territories in Transparency International’s 2010 corruption perceptions index, the Philippines improved to 94 last year from 105 in 2012.

Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla were among those who received DAP funds for various projects in 2012, according to a statement from Budget Secretary Butch Abad in September. The three are in jail awaiting trial on charges they stole part of their congressional budgets, claims they have denied.

Aquino on July 11 turned down the resignation of Abad, one of his top economic officials, after 15 groups filed a plunder complaint against the budget secretary. The groups including Kabataan Partylist and Youth Act Now on July 8 alleged Abad “systematically misappropriated, converted, misused, and malversed public funds” through the spending program.

‘Pork Barrel’ Scandal

The Philippine Daily Inquirer exposed the so-called pork barrel scam in July last year, sparking a government investigation that focused on businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles as the alleged mastermind of the scheme. Lim-Napoles, who is in jail for a separate criminal case, linked at least 120 sitting and former lawmakers to the scandal in a May 26 affidavit, including some of Aquino’s allies.

In the Social Weather poll, Aquino’s net satisfaction rating peaked in June 2013 at +64, beating the first reading of +60 in September 2010 and on par with the November 2010 rating. His popularity has slipped since the “pork barrel” scandal emerged last year. His predecessor Gloria Arroyo, whose highest rating was +30 in March 2004, had a negative net satisfaction rating since October 2004 up to the end of her term in 2010.

To contact the reporters on this story: Norman P. Aquino in Manila at naquino1@bloomberg.net; Joel Guinto in Manila at jguinto1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net Neil Western, Dick Schumacher

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