The Aquino effect

The PHILIPPINES’ election results are due today. Even as the country prepares to welcome another Aquino as its President, it is evident that 25 years after the overthrow of the military dictatorship, the challenges to democracy and its institutionalisation are still strong.
This recent election reflects that even today the Aquino family name remains a legacy in the politics of the Philippines. After the success of the “people’s power” revolution in 1986 under the leadership of the late Cory Aquino, which overthrew the dictatorship of General Ferdinand Marcos, the Aquino family name remains a political force to reckon with.
With his promise of a clean government and strong measures against corrupt practices in governance, Cory Aquino’s son Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III has emerged as the most likely candidate to succeed Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as the President. Added to this are his promises of better health schemes, educational reforms to reach the poor and improvement of the judiciary.
Noynoy Aquino has become a symbol of change in a country where for nearly 14 years political corruption and scandal have been characteristic of the leadership. From the early results, he looks set to win nearly 39-42 per cent of the votes — this would be the largest mandate for any President in the Philippines’ election history. Since the Philippines’ system is based on a simple majority, there is no run off among the presidential candidates and the executive goes to the one who has the most votes.
The electoral process, near culmination now, witnessed several ups and downs, even sporadic cases of violence, particularly from the country’s troubled southern provinces. In Maguindanao pre-electoral violence led to the death of 57 civilians, mostly journalists. In fact, factionalism among the families with political allegiances in the southern provinces has led to well-established clans that have struggled to maintain their political linkages. These have often acted as local warlords, making the conflict in the south far more complex and intransigent.
Over the last three months there were indications suggesting that the outgoing government of President Gloria Arroyo would push a military backed coup so as to remain in power. The possibility of imposing martial rule in the country was strong, thus ruining the chances of a free and fair election to elect a new executive and legislature.

LIKE IN most Asian countries, in the Philippines too personality politics is the rule of the game. In fact, the presidential candidates for the current elections were colourful and interesting personalities, each having a following, for reasons both good and bad. While Noynoy remained the contender with the cleanest image and a daunting political legacy, the others in the race where no less influential. His close contenders were former ousted President Estrada (Erap), a real estate billionaire Manny Villar and President Arroyo’s defence minister Gilberto Theodoro. Adding to this array were three colourful contenders for seats in the Lower House, or the Congress — a former boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, the 80-year-old former First Lady, Imelda Marcos, and the former President herself, Gloria Arroyo. After holding the office of the top executive Marcos changed tactics and was again running for a seat in the Congress!
In terms of the challenges that face the new President, the first will be to prosecute corrupt politicians from the former administration. On the platform of a clean government Noynoy Aquino has promised both immediate and effective mechanisms to deal with corruption within the government. The independence and integrity of the judiciary, which had turned a blind eye to cases of corruption, will remain critical to any change in governance. This is one challenge that may be difficult given that bringing the former political leadership to book will look like a witch hunt. Already the intensity of the rhetoric seems to be dying down.
A second challenge that needs to be addressed is the issue of land distribution. In the run up to the elections the two leading presidential candidates, Manny Villar and Noynoy Aquino, faced criticism on this issue. Manny Villar is often seen as a wheeler-dealer businessman with close corporate links to the Arroyo government; and Aquino, on the other hand, had to assure that the promise of his mother, to redistribute lands of the ailing sugar industry, would actually be fulfilled. Given that he remains a minor stakeholder in this industry, the redistribution will be a critical test of his pledge towards a clean and honest government.
The third challenge will be to ensure that the government addresses social deprivation, particularly in terms of access to education and health for the rural and urban poor. This is a crucial plank on which Noynoy Aquino contested.
Noynoy Aquino’s fourth challenge will be to address the issues that have plagued the southern provinces. Not only has this region been home to the rebel Islamic groups of the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but it has also been the base of the New People’s Army, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). In fact, the CPP has swung between candidates during the current electoral process trying to vie for a role where it could leverage some political advantages. Given the severe discord between the military and the factions in the south, Noynoy Aquino also has the arduous task of trying to bring these three groups which have dominated the conflict in the south to a more inclusive form of political process where multiple interests of all competing factions can be met.
Even as one witnesses political turmoil in countries like Thailand and Burma, the Philippines seems to offer a ray of hope in a region which has seen severe political reversals. Given the huge challenge of the legacy that faces Noynoy Aquino, the hurdles are not going to be easy to overcome — a restive south, a judiciary that needs desperate revamping and the challenges of the growing gap between the rich and the poor need to be tackled. The next six years will be crucial and hopefully the Aquino legacy will work to address these, and to direct this archipelago towards a more stable future.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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