At Large

Just Say NoyNoy

Philippines chooses bland new president -- and nothing will change.

By 5.21.10

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Benigno Simeon Aquino III  (aka Noynoy), the latest in his family's leadership line, won last week's Philippine national election by a commanding 40-plus percent of the votes cast. It appears he will begin his term as president with a relatively broad mandate for change. Not bad for a man who has rarely left his family estate or businesses since 1998 to act in his elected capacity as a congressman and senator by attending congressional sessions. He will need every bit of his popular mandate.

Noynoy's father, the late Senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr. (Ninoy), after being imprisoned by Ferdinand Marcos and suffering two heart attacks, was allowed to leave the Philippines for the United States in 1980. He tried to come back in 1983 from his safe haven in Newton, Massachusetts, but was assassinated as he stepped off the plane in Manila. While he was in the U.S., Nino had tried hard to explain to his American hosts the essential frailty of the Philippine polity that he believed the various American leaders had never been able to fully comprehend. It has been said that part of this drive to explain the complicated aspects of his homeland was tied to his seeking justification for his own father's collaboration with the Japanese during WW2.

Ninoy Aquino wrote and spoke of the difficulty in reforming the Philippine political system. He often referred to the endemic socio-economic character in Philippine culture of the acceptance, and even need, of the trickle-down functions of "gifts, advantages and wealth" built into the tradition of his nation's life. Ninoy emphasized that until wholesale change of this deep-rooted, tribal-based system occurred there never could be a real reformation of his homeland's political existence.

Corazon Aquino, Ninoy's widow and Noynoy's mother, was swept into the presidency in 1986 on a wave of emotion, but she did little during her administration to alter the power of the oligarchs. This is now the same problem that faces the new Aquino in her old job. The mild-mannered, consistently uninvolved Noynoy, however, has an additional obstacle to overcome.

The departing president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who left office due to term limits, was elected to a congressional seat, and is said to seek the position of Speaker of the House. From there she could push through legislation of interest to her and her allies. Some speculate she might seek to gain passage of a constitutional change creating a parliamentary system with a prime minister as head of government; thus diminishing the power of the presidency, and allowing her to regain ascendancy

While Noynoy won an impressive plurality of the vote, he still will have to negotiate with other parties for his supposedly anti-corruption program. That immediately suggests a weakening of such a program. Even within his own Liberal Party compromises will have to be forged that will tend to undercut the new president's ability to press for anti-special interest legislation.

The additional complicating factor of family allegiances tends to instruct or simply override political actions on all levels. One of the most striking examples of family control exists in the predominantly Moslem Maguindanao province of Mindanao. In this region, 600 miles south of Manila, the Ampatuan clan holds sway. As far as federal authorities are concerned, their private army ensures protection against criminals and anti-government rebels.

> The Ampatuan also guarantee elections for their chosen central government power players in Manila. In return federal money flows back to Maguindanao Province to be distributed as desired by the Ampatuan. This exercise is repeated with other clans throughout the various key communities of the Philippines -- as it has for generations.

While the Philippines has a well-established democratic system of elections, aggressive press, and what has been referred to as a "nominally independent judiciary," the reality is that violence pervades the nation and landowners exercise feudal power and privilege.

This is the world that Benigno Aquino III has inherited. The longing of the Philippine voters for a cessation to endemic corruption and the obvious inability or unwillingness of the various post-war governments to do so does not bode well for Noynoy's new administration. The voters have invested greatly in their hopes for a drastic change in the Philippine world that Noynoy's father delineated in the years of his exile.

Failure to achieve at least a modicum of success in altering the path of traditional Philippine politics will certainly create the environment for a military coup along lines that have occurred previously. Protestations by Major General Gaudencio Pangilinan, head of the Army's "military affairs division," that such things were in the past and not the present has convinced only the most innocent. After all, the Army and National Police remain the only even passing disciplined elements in the national structure.

The elections were successful. The Philippine people love elections and all the excitement that goes with them. The question remains, however, whether the studiously uninvolved Noynoy Aquino will have the desire and inner strength to challenge the previously unmanageable herd of politicians.

Or is it that the power brokers -- family, business, religious, tribal and military -- are counting on his weaknesses to keep the nation's many powerful factions in balance? Neither Washington nor Manila really knows.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.