Aquino Conundrum at the Heart of Messy Politics

President Benigno Aquino III (Photo by Ryan Lim/Malacañang Photo Bureau)

President Benigno Aquino III (Photo by Ryan Lim/Malacañang Photo Bureau)

First published by Nikkei Asian Review, April 8, 2015

As president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III is defying a general trend in his country's politics. The economy continues to surge even as his ratings plummet, which is remarkable for a leader who critics widely regard as an ineffectual lame duck; his term expires in just over a year.

In March, Aquino suffered his lowest poll ratings -- 50 percent below the approval rating when he came to power in June 2010. Yet the economy continues to forge ahead -- reaching 6.1 percent annual growth in gross domestic product in 2014, up from 3.7 percent in 2011, and could be the second fastest-growing in the world in 2015, according to economists. The Philippines has also emerged as the best performer in Southeast Asia, edging out Thailand and Indonesia, the two biggest members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Investor confidence in the country has been robust. In 2014, credit ratings agencies upgraded the Philippines to investment grade, from BBB- to BBB, the highest rating it has ever received. Finally, after a decade of being the "sick man" of Asia, the Philippines is seen as a rising star.

Divisive politics can easily taint the economy and dampen growth, but recent Philippine presidents have bucked this trend. Essentially the country is now at a stage in its development where the economy has been spared its usually messy political infighting, having gained its own momentum.

The outlook is likely to stay extremely positive as long as two factors remain: first, that the country continues to uphold democracy and with it, orderly transitions of power. Second, that future leaders continue the fight against corruption, which has plagued past regimes. Two former presidents have been charged with plunder: Gloria Arroyo is under house arrest in a medical facility and Joseph Estrada was convicted but later pardoned.

Aquino may not be a visionary leader or a strategic thinker. He places a premium on personal relationships rather than on meritocracy, appointing close friends to key positions.

Then there is the nature of Philippine democracy. In a region that has had its fair share of political upheavals and authoritarian regimes, the Philippines is clearly one of the more vibrant democracies, as some of its neighbors face political disruptions. Thailand has slid into military rule, certain freedoms are restricted in Malaysia and Singapore, and Myanmar and Cambodia are in a state of transition.

The Philippines has left behind its stormy years when it was plagued by coup attempts during the leadership of Aquino's mother, Corazon, in the late 1980s. She was swept into the presidency by a power grab that turned into a popular revolt known as "People Power," and then presided over turbulent years after decades of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos.

The country had a respite under Corazon Aquino's successor, Fidel Ramos. During his term (1992-1998), the soldiers returned to the barracks. Ramos's ascent to the presidency was the first orderly transfer of power since martial law was declared in 1972. And it took Ramos, a former general, to quiet the military and spur the economy.

Estrada, a wildly popular movie actor, succeeded Ramos but stayed only for two years as he was deposed in another popular revolt amid escalating corruption scandals. Unstable politics returned to the country as Arroyo took over in 2001, and found herself fighting off coup attempts in her early years. With a doctorate in economics, she started out as a reformist and a competent leader. However, Arroyo was perceived to be corrupt, and was widely condemned for allowing her husband, Miguel, to make dubious business deals.

Fighting Corruption

It was in this context of pervasive graft that Aquino ran for president, driven by public nostalgia for his late mother's pristine reputation. He campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, equating the push with alleviating poverty. He won by an overwhelming vote.

Even so, a sizable chunk of the nation's swelling 100 million population remains poor, with at least 20 percent living on $1.20 a day. Unemployment is a pressing problem, with a 6.7 percent jobless rate, the highest in Southeast Asia. Aquino is trying to address these by pushing for more investment in manufacturing and through increased budgets for health, education and social welfare.

Aquino himself is Mr. Clean, untainted by corruption scandal. Under his watch, three senators have been sent to jail because they took kickbacks from congressional funds. A chief justice was impeached for not declaring his multimillion peso bank accounts in his assets statement, a first in the country's history.

Aquino has appointed credible and effective frontliners in the fight against corruption, including the Ombudsman, the top graftbuster in government, and heads of the audit commission and justice department. In the global scene, the Philippines is among the founders of the U.S.-initiated Open Government Partnership, an alliance to promote transparency as a tool against corruption.

Still, reducing malfeasance in the bureaucracy remains a challenge. The Philippines loses nearly $2 billion a year to this malaise. And a freedom of information bill has yet to be passed by Congress.

Aquino's Crisis

Aquino may not be a visionary leader or a strategic thinker. He places a premium on personal relationships rather than on meritocracy, appointing close friends to key positions. He tends to drown himself in details, missing the big picture. But the business community is happy that he does not dip his fingers into the till. Thus, despite his shortcomings, he enjoyed high popularity ratings in his first four years in office, unusual in Philippine politics.

It was only in this, his fifth year that his numbers took a dive, putting him at his weakest as he faces the worst crisis in his presidency. A botched police operation in January to hunt down a Malaysian terrorist on the FBI most-wanted list resulted in the killing of 44 Special Action Force soldiers, 18 Muslim rebels, and seven civilians on the southern island of Mindanao. The terrorist was killed but it came at a high price.

Aquino at the wake of the 44 fallen Philippine National Police-Special Action Force officers (Source:

Aquino at the wake of the 44 fallen Philippine National Police-Special Action Force officers (Source:

The crux of the issue here is that Aquino allowed a suspended police chief, charged with corruption, to direct the operation. This official happened to be his close friend. Aquino also showed poor judgment when he excluded key cabinet members from making decisions on the operation, and failed to take into account its impact on the peace legislation for the Muslim rebels, now in its last stretch in Congress. This was supposed to be his much-vaunted legacy, stilling the guns after decades of rebellion in Muslim Mindanao.

2016 Elections

There is still time for Aquino to ride over this bump before elections in May 2016.

The big challenge for the president and his ruling coalition is to choose a successor, considering his weakened endorsement power and the fact that a leading contender, Vice President Jejomar Binay, faces graft charges.

Vice President Jejomar Binay (Source:

Vice President Jejomar Binay (Source:

While no major policy changes are expected from a post-Aquino administration, the business community is concerned that clean government should continue. The civic-minded Makati Business Club is worried that the next president may not pursue the anti-corruption and transparency efforts of Aquino and thus lower investor confidence in the country. The most critical test for this administration in preserving its gains, as Ramon del Rosario, head of the club, said in a recent speech, is to choose a presidential candidate "who will continue good governance and [the] development agenda."

Succession planning barely exists in Philippine politics. Even if Aquino wants to groom an heir in his cabinet or political party, the result will be determined primarily by how they are doing in the polls. With weak political parties, which have become more like flags of convenience, and the system of political patronage, elections have become popularity contests. This explains why movie actors, their sons and daughters, comedians, TV news anchors and talk show hosts make it to the Senate and elsewhere.

 As things stand, it may be hard to completely reverse Aquino's transparency and anti-corruption efforts, with a public that is now more attuned to honest government. Some government departments have already uploaded public-interest information on their websites, previously hidden from citizens, such as bid documents and financial reports.

In October -- the deadline for presidential candidates to file their certificates of candidacy -- the field of contenders will be known. A likely scenario is for three or four serious aspirants. Apart from Binay, these could include Senator Grace Poe, a neophyte who topped the senatorial elections in 2013; Rodrigo Duterte, an effective city mayor known for his iron-fist rule; and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, a key ally of Aquino's. The race is likely to be tight and the vote will be split.

For all his faults, Aquino has shown that honest leadership in a transparent and vibrant democracy can insulate the economy from political troubles and need not damage growth. However he fares in popularity polls, at the very least, he will leave this lesson behind as the Philippines becomes a more successful and mature regional player.

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Marites D. Vitug

Marites D. Vitug

Marites D. Vitug is editor at large of Rappler and author of several books on Philippine affairs.

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