ASIA HAND Exalted Aquino has far to fall
By Shawn W Crispin
MANILA - Yellow flags stamped with portraits of President Benigno Aquino's
deceased politician parents wave along the capital's historic Roxas Boulevard.
It is one of the ironies of Philippine politics that high hopes for change are
so closely associated with death and disappointment. One of the flags, bearing
the likeness of Aquino's assassinated father, reads: "Filipinos are worth dying
Aquino's rise to the presidency earlier this year owed largely to the timing of
his mother's death from natural causes. The passing of former president Corazon
Aquino, viewed by many Filipinos as a model Catholic and rare moral politician,
sparked an outpouring of public grief that Benigno and his campaign managers
to leverage ingeniously into campaign messages of hope and change.
Since taking office, Aquino has signaled the need for deep-reaching reforms and
with his family's good name restored a modicum of public trust in government
after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's scandal-plagued tenure. He has also enjoyed
halcyon days with the country's media, with business newspaper headlines
beaming about the "Aquino effect" on resurrected consumer and business
But how long can the epiphany last? The Philippines takes many of its cultural
and political cues from the United States, one of its former colonial rulers.
In many ways, the Aquino exuberance that has swept the Philippines mirrors that
of the early days of US President Barack Obama's heady, historic rise to power
The buzz wore off in Washington with revelations that Obama was serving rather
than punishing the big banks and insurance companies that led the country into
economic and financial crisis, and that he recanted on his campaign trail
promise to wind down costly US military adventurism after assuming the power of
Filipinos desperately need a new era of moral government, one that sheds reform
light on the darkness of endemic corruption, cultures of violence and impunity,
and stubbornly high unemployment and poverty rates. It is a matter of
melancholy fact that the Philippines top earning export is labor, representing
25% of the active workforce, rather than homegrown manufactures or innovations.
While election-related spending and global recovery drove economic growth up
7.3% in the first quarter, unemployment nonetheless rose from 7.5% to 8% year
on year in April, underscoring the challenge of creating enough jobs to keep
pace with rapid population growth. Self-rated poverty and hunger rates declined
quarter on quarter through March, yet 43% of Philippine households considered
themselves impoverished and 24% as suffering from hunger, according to Social
Weather Service surveys.
In a recent report, the World Bank noted that "Aquino's core electoral platform
rested on improving governance and reducing corruption so as to reduce poverty"
and that “these elections generated large hope for reforms and tackling well
known structural bottlenecks, especially corruption - the perception of which
has increased steadily over the past years as reported by various international
cross country indices."
Nonetheless, diplomats and other seasoned foreign observers are skeptical that
Aquino will be able to leverage his strong mandate and favorable family history
into substantive political, economic and social change. Privately, Aquino's
aides look askance at Obama's popular slippage and express concerns about the
similarly steep expectations surrounding their reformist government.
Rule by gun
Unlike many of the Philippines' regional peers, where the legacies or realities
of military rule have led to an over-concentration of central power over
peripheral regions, the Philippines arguably suffers from central authority
deficit. Political family clans rule entire provinces as fiefdoms and often
treat local government budgets as personal coffers, a phenomenon US academic
Alfred McCoy famously and rightly referred to as an "anarchy of families".
That anarchy resulted in last year's Maguindanao massacre, where one political
clan armed with its own tanks and private militia murdered the relatives of
another in an orgy of local election-related violence that left 57 dead. The
accused perpetrators, members of the dominant Ampatuan clan, secured votes in
the region for outgoing president Arroyo at the 2004 elections.
The massacre underscored the pressing need for more central authority over the
country's many lawless and violence-prone provincial areas, where the police,
courts and local officials perpetuate rather than check the abuses of powerful
clans. In many murder cases across the country, the Supreme Court has ordered
trials moved to Manila due to the perceived lack of independence of local
courts and judges.
While Europe convicts about 90% of its murder suspects, and the US
approximately 60%, the Philippines conviction rate is less than 10%, according
to the European Union's Philippine Justice Support Program. The lawlessness,
including rising violence against and kidnappings of foreigners, has hampered
the country's ability to attract foreign investment and tourism to its
impoverished, but often resource-rich and picture-perfect, hinterland areas.
Despite a decentralization drive, local governments still derive most of their
income from the national government, accounting for 90% in the provinces, 70%
in the cities and 86% in municipalities. A recent Asia Foundation survey raised
questions about budget transparency issues, concluding that "much work needs to
be done to improve local governments' public disclosure systems". It noted that
information on budgets, expenditures, and financial reports are still not
shared with the general public.
To curb abuse and restore rule by law in the provinces, Aquino will need to
show a hitherto undemonstrated brand of strong leadership. Aquino failed to
distinguish himself as an authoritative legislator during his years in the
House of Representatives and Senate, and people familiar with his management
style say he inherited more of his mother's reticence than his father Ninoy
Aquino's oratory and tendency towards confrontation.
That was apparent to some in Aquino's duck-and-hide handling of the recent
hostage crisis in Manila that resulted in the deaths of a number of foreign
tourists by a disgruntled police officer and his bumbling diplomacy in the
aftermath that unnecessarily stoked bilateral tensions with China, the
country's largest provider of official development assistance.
If he remains devout to his reform rhetoric, Aquino will soon find himself
working at loggerheads with political, legal and law-enforcement systems that
are effectively broken, particularly at the provincial and local levels where
his promise of political change resonated most deeply. The Maguindanao massacre
case, which his government has referred to as a "litmus test" for the judicial
system, will due to legal maneuvers likely last longer than Aquino's six-year
One senior Manila-based diplomat suggests that tackling provincial clans won't
be enough to live up to popular expectations and that Aquino must challenge the
"De La Salle-UP crowd", a reference to the country's top two universities'
politically and commercially influential alumni, to achieve genuine reform.
Some believe that Manila's elites could instead reach a consensus under Aquino
and lend their support to reforms that modernize the bureaucracy and economy
and in the process increase the size of the economic pie they now dominate.
Rallying them around measures that promote more social justice, wealth
redistribution and human rights, if history is a guide, will meet stiff
Because Aquino hails from a well-educated family clan with vested interests in
land holdings and private business, similar to the outgoing Arroyo, his
commitment to justice and reform is still uncertain. Although his mother's time
in power is now viewed nostalgically, she failed to achieve crucial land and
other wealth redistributing reforms.
As the next generation of Aquinos enters Malacanang Palace, despite the
euphoria and promise, there is a real risk that despair will outlast hope and
that once again Filipinos will have bowed before a false messiah.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.