Sentimental Journey for the Philippines – The Irrawaddy

Cover of June 2010 Irrawaddy magazine

When former President and anti-dictatorship figurehead Cory Aquino passed away last August, the outpouring of grief and nostalgia did more than just make for a memorable funeral and headline obituaries for a national icon. It contributed to the landslide win for her son Senator Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III in the May 10 Presidential election.

Initially unsure whether or not to run, the low-key Senator spent time in a Carmelite monastery, attempting to discern what was God’s will for him and his country. He was the clear leader for most of the pre-electoral polling period, with only eventual 3rd-place finisher Sen. Manny Villar ever looking like threatening Aquino’s lead.

Villar’s campaign went off the rails as ‘Noynoy’ fingered him as being allegedly too close to the deeply-unpopular outgoing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and for links to a corruption scandal.

Even before the poll took place, odds were short that Aquino would win. ‘Noynoy’ supporter and head of the influential Makati Business Club Alberto Lim told The Irrawaddy that Aquino’s decision to run was “a game changer”, that left the other candidates trailing in his wake.

Noynoy running-mate Risa Hontiveiros onstage with parody of outgoing President Arroyo

Rooting out graft was a key campaign issue which all candidates paid lip service to. Ordinary Filipinos see dismantling cronyism as the best bet to addressing the growing poverty and massive rich-poor divide in the 7000-island archipelago.

Despite his pro-poor rhetoric, Villar’s wealth and massive campaign spending was not enough to prevent him fading to a distant third, well-behind aging former President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada. ‘Erap’ was ousted in 2001 in what was partly a street protests against corruption in his office, and partly a palace coup orchestrated by then Vice-President Arroyo, who belatedly latched onto the public protests to instigate nine years of GMA rule.

But ‘Erap’ retained a loyal following among many poorer voters, despite his propensity for verbal faux-pas. Once asked to rate himself as a politician, he replied: “on a scale of 1 to 10, I give myself 70 per cent”. As 1999 drew to a close he appeared on TV ushering in the new millenium. When everyone around him was counting down to the New Year, Estrada was counting up. Such gaffes have made him the butt of many jokes, but simultaneously endears him to many Filipinos who elide these all-too-human failings with his portrayal of working-class heroes during a long movie career.

The sentiment did not end there. The Marcos family is back big-time, with the deceased dictator Ferdinand’s widow Imelda winning the Congress seat in the family stronghold of Ilocos Norte. Son ‘Bongbong’ (Ferdinand Jr.) took a Senate seat. Many Filipinos I spoke with over election week said that nostalgia for the Marcos era was growing – quite an indictment of the outgoing GMA administration It is something akin to a hypothetical Burma, twenty years after the fall of the current junta, lamenting its absence due to the failings of the elected politicians who succeeded.

The early years of the Marcos era were praised for their relative economic stability and prosperity. When asked if the growing appreciation for this time extended to the latter years of the Marcos dictatorship, people said no. The point is that under Arroyo, most Filipinos feel that their country has either stagnated, or gone backwards. Despite around 5% average annual economic growth, poverty has increased. Around 10% of GDP comes from remittances sent home by millions of emigrants, who are so important and ubiquitous they have an official title – Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). There is a dedicated OFW section at Ninoy Aquino International Airport and there are various offices and departments dealing with OFW matters throughout Government departments and the diplomatic corps.

As usual, the election campaign was more form than content – with concert-style rallies featuring TV stars and pop musicians, but little or no policy angle. With formal political parties little more than vehicles for their A-list candidates, a coterie of TV celebrities and movie stars have made the jump to political office. Some are big-hitters internationally. While the sporting world wonders whether or not his much-anticipated fight with the undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr will go ahead, world welterweight boxing champion Manny Pacquaio took time out to win a Congressional seat in the country’s south.

The fact remains that most of the 18000 elected politicians in the Philippines come from a narrow range of around 200 political dynasties and elites. If voter choices seem somewhat retrograde or superficial, the sad fact is that ordinary Filipinos do not have too many options to choose from in what is more oligarchy than democracy.

And while Aquino has an evocative family name and background, heir to legacy established by a martyr father and humble, yet revolutionary mother, he is at the same time part of that same elite., from an old landed family based in Central Luzon north of Manila.

He exhibits little of the swaggering brashness or materialism that is the stock of the average Filipino politician, but has he the stomach to tackle the elite-based system head-on? It is a big ask, one that proved beyond his esteemed mother. It might even mean doing away with some valuable Aquino family assets. Bobby Tauzon of the Center for Empowerment and Governance in Manila told The Irrawaddy that “it would take a lot of self-transformation that includes betraying your own feudal interests – such as giving up the family-owned Hacienda Luisita if he decides to take the first significant step for a genuine land reform, for example.”

Even with the best intentions, Aquino’s room for maneouvre will be limited, due to the entrenched interests he will have to face. Malcolm Cook of the Lowy Institute, a think-tank dedicated to Asian politics and international affairs, said that “it is really more the system in the Philippines rather than who wins in it that is important and the root to the country’s deep political problems.”

Another hurdle may be the outgoing President. Mrs Arroyo is now a Congressional representative, where she hopes to build a power-base to at least undermine Aquino’s pledges to have her investigated for various abuses during her term of office. She may even try to push for Aquino’s impeachment, and seek to divert power from the Presidency to the Congress, is she can commandeer sufficient numbers in the House.

That may not come to pass, however. Mon Casiple is head of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform IPER, a Manila-based policy analysis organisation. He thinks that the sketchy party system in The Philippines might work to Aquino’s advantage by the time the newly-elected representatives sit down in July. He said “the trend, hitherto, is for the new president to exert political pressure on the lower House such that–at the end–he gets his way and organize the majority around the programs and initiatives of the Executive branch.”

The President-elect can do without any distractions, as he will have a full agenda. Over a third of the country’s 90 million+ inhabitants live on less than US$1 a day, while OFWs now number 8 million. Long-standing insurgencies by Muslim rebels in the south and by Communists across the archipelago defy resolution. His pledge to root out corruption means that the public will want to see some important heads roll for past scandals, but a real root-and-branch anti-graft drive will require more than showcase incarcerations.

How far Aquino can take his reform drive remains to be seen. Writing over two hundred years ago, Irish novelist Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey unwittingly set an implicit target for Aquino, as the new President of the Philippines ends his own sentimental journey to the Malacanang Palace. “He found a city of bricks, he left one of marble”.

– Roughneen was in Manila in early May to cover the Filipino elections.

Follow us on Twitter
, , ,