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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 10, 2010
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 for."

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 were able


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 confidence.

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 in 2008.

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 commander-in-chief.

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 tenure.

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 resistance.

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.

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Hostage deaths test China-Philippine ties
(Aug 26, '10)

Aquino raises investment doubts
(Jul 16, '10)


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