Aquino’s Legacy: New Era in the Philippines


“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal,” Emma Goldman, one of America’s foremost feminists once sardonically remarked. For revolutionaries like her, the established institutions of democracy were programmed to block and frustrate genuine reform at the expense of the ruling establishment.

The Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has gone so far as claiming that ‘democracy is the enemy’ of true reform, since “it is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the only legitimate means of change, which prevents a genuine transformation in capitalist relations.”

And yet, every year hundreds of millions of people around the world dedicate countless hours of their precious lives to probing and supporting preferred candidates, braving long queues and all kinds of risks to cast their ballots, even if they know their single votes are just a drop in the ocean or may not even get counted in the end.

This is not, as some Marxists would put it, a product of ‘false consciousness’ per se, but instead the audacity of hope — the belief in the promise of peaceful change, for the better, against all odds.

In the case of the Philippines, the past two presidential elections have witnessed historic levels of popular participation and emotionally-charged campaigns, giving birth, most recently, to Rodrigo Duterte, who now enjoys ‘super-majority’ support in the Philippine Congress and is soon set to appoint the bulk of the country’s Supreme Court justices.

Overnight, Duterte has become, as Filipino Sociologist Walden Bello puts it, the country’s most powerful president since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. Polls suggest that the outgoing president, Benigno Aquino, is going down in history as the country’s most popular and trusted leader yet.

Unlike Duterte, who is yet to gain the trust of the vast majority of the population, Aquino was swept into power on the back of massive outpour of public sympathy and trust. Similar to his successor, however, Aquino promised a new era — a genuine transformation in the Philippine political landscape.

of people, especially in the national capital region, have been unsatisfied with his performance.

Above all, perhaps, Aquino should be credited for making the fight against corruption a centrepiece of Philippine political discourse, so much so that no less than Duterte has made the fight against corruption a key element of his broader war on crime. And this also explains why certain candidates, who faced massive corruption scandals, performed very poorly in the latest elections, even if, not long ago, they were seen as runaway winners.

It is this discursive revolution that should be remembered as Aquino’s most enduring legacy, notwithstanding the immense shortcoming of the actual fight against corruption. As they say, change should first happen in mentality before we change our reality.

Dilemmas of Reform

Genuine political reform is no easy feat, especially in a country like the Philippines, which has been dominated by a fairly coherent oligarchy for much of recent history.

Since many powerful forces have a stake in preserving the status quo, real change demands extraordinary leadership, an element of luck, popular support, and immeasurable time and energy.

In a nation where forgiveness and forgetfulness are often interchangeable, the political elite — despite its numerous mishaps and predatory behavior under various colonial masters in the past and, later, sovereign governments — has managed to constantly rehabilitate its reputation, avoid full accountability, and prevent the kind of political purges, which jolted revolutionary France and reshuffled the political order in many other European, Asian, and Latin American nations in the following centuries.

Despite the formal “democratic” outer layers of its political institutions, the Philippines is fundamentally a country ruled by an unruly few, who have reduced one of the most promising nations — blessed with an auspicious geography, among the most cosmopolitan cultures, countless natural riches, and among the fastest growing economies in the mid-20th century — into an emaciated collective, which has struggled to graduate out of the lower-middle-income trap for decades.

Yet, the Philippines is also a nation of hope, anchored by a boisterous intelligentsia, a feisty and vigilant media, and a resilient population, which has withstood both man-made and natural disasters since time immemorial. It is a country that stood up against dictatorship, cherishes and instinctively strives for freedom, and constantly seeks peace and dialogue over conflict and exclusion.

The Record

In his final days in office, Aquino seems confident and self-assured, even uncharacteristically subdued, relishing what he believes to be six years of broadly constructive contribution to national development.

“There is no place in the country that I am afraid to go to because we neglected them,” Aquino told Rappler, a local online newspaper, in his final days in office.

To be sure, Aquino should be credited for continuing sound macroeconomic policies of his predecessor (Arroyo), which has allowed the Philippines to enjoy Asia’s highest growth rate and the world’s fourth fastest. He must also be credited for investing in the country’s armed forces, especially in terms of external defense, beyond any of his predecessors in recent memory. He has also overseen the completion of big-ticket infrastructure projects such as the Aluling Bridge, which connects Mountain Province and Ilocos Sur.

And many more will be completed in coming years, although I won’t be surprised if the Duterte administration will take the credit for them.

I would dare to argue, however, that Aquino should be, above all, credited for introducing a moral dimension to Philippine politics, a phenomenon I call Moralpolitik. Like no other Filipino leader in recent memory, Aquino staked his political capital in a moral crusade against institutionalized corruption in the country.

One can hardly find any comparable leader in recent memory, who has dedicated so much political capital to take on allegedly corrupt officials from all three branches of the government — the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative.

He mainstreamed the concept of “good governance” (Daan Matuwid), constantly reiterating the importance of clean, accountable leadership. Almost singlehandedly, Aquino injected morality into the heart of the Philippines’ long-cynical politics. He resuscitated pre-Machiavellian political philosophy, emphasizing the importance of ethical leadership in pursuit of collective good.

In fact, he has done the same thing in the realm of foreign policy, describing the Philippines’ struggle against an expansionist China through the prism of “right vs. might”.

No wonder, the Aquino administration has invested so much in the ongoing legal arbitration at The Hague against China, when other claimant countries have mainly focused on proactive diplomatic engagement, robust military buildup, and consolidation of claims on the ground.

The Next Phase

Obviously, we can have a healthy debate on how successful and impartial Aquino’s anti-corruption initiatives have been in practice, keeping the DAP issue in mind and the failure of the government to incarcerate even a single ‘big fish’ accused of massive corruption, but no one can deny how vigorously Aquino pursued powerful politicians, who were once seen as almost invincible not long ago.

In short, Aquino “moralized” the country’s broken politics and reintroduced an ethical discourse on the state of its rotten institutions.

But of course, the main problem with Aquino’s economic policy was one of omission rather than commission. In absence of more creative, heterodox policies, the government fell short of ensuring that the growing economic pie will become inclusive.

As a result, much of the newly-created wealth in the country has been swallowed by the elite, while poverty and hunger rates as well as un/under employment rates have virtually remained inelastic.

Without a major boost in agricultural (land reform is crucial here) and manufacturing sectors (greenfield investments is key), I am doubtful we will be creating inclusive growth anytime soon. Not to mention, we are yet to see a major upgrade in the Philippines’ dilapidated infrastructure, which has discouraged foreign investors and burdened daily commuters.

From afar, it is easy to criticize the government. Some journalists and commentators have regrettably even resorted to ad hominem attacks against a leader, who was voted into power by millions of people and responsible voters. Aquino’s opponents — many belonging to the corrupt factions, which oppose “good governance” as an existential threat — have used all sorts of strategies to demean him and undermine his popularity.

But there is a reason why Aquino remains to be a popular leader, especially when compared to his predecessors in their twilight years in office. Many Filipinos, as credible surveys consistently suggest, do credit Aquino for his good intentions, despite his many shortcomings in practice.

You don’t have to be an expert to realize that with the Philippines’ weak state institutions, hobbled by entrenched networks of political patronage, and only a single six-year term in office, there is just so much a well-meaning leader can do to overhaul a broken political system.

Genuine reform and lasting change comes on the back of institutions and “effective governance”, not personalities. Good governance will not be achieved unless Aquino’s reforms and best practices are carried forward by his successors.

Overall, Aquino may have not been a transformational leader — constantly struggling with controversies and forces of corruption without and within the state apparatus — but he has arguably served as a pretty defensible transitional leader, who may have laid down the foundation of a better future for the Philippines.

Next stop is about “effective leadership”, translating Aquino’s best intentions into tangible developments on the ground. Aquino’s legacy is ultimately about beginning a new end, perhaps a better chapter for a long-suffering nation.

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