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Philippines' Benigno Aquino: A mummy's boy or the real deal?

By John McBeth -- During the four years I spent in the Philippines in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I developed a healthy distaste for the ruling elite, exemplified by the inept leadership of President Corazon Aquino, who dragged her feet on key reforms and left us without power for 10 hours a day.

So when the democracy icon's son Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, was elected to take over from disgraced predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in June 2010, I was probably not alone in thinking it would simply be more of the same. Perhaps even worse.

From a distance, however, a man who had already spent 12 years in Congress without causing as much as a ripple seemed to be shaping up as a surprise package, someone from the notoriously selfish elite who cared and was getting things done.

The economy finally seemed to be on track, humming along at a region-high 6.6 percent. Just as surprising was the way Aquino squared off against Catholic Church conservatives over the Reproductive Health Act, which he signed into law last December.

That and the passage of the Sin Tax Reform Act, raising duties on alcohol and cigarettes, were unquestionably major political achievements. More so than the low-hanging fruit represented by the corruption cases against Arroyo and Chief Justice Renato Corona.

The latest Pulse Asia survey results still give Aquino a startling 72 percent approval rating, just behind Vice President Jejomar Binay, who is favored to succeed him at the end of his mandated six-year term in 2016.

But is it all for real? People whose judgment I trust are putting much of it down to luck and to a clever public relations campaign in a country known for its weakness for populist policies and an obsession with celebrities.

Essentially, they say, the 53-year-old unmarried leader and his incorruptible image is the creation of his television-star sister, Kris, whose “rich kid” antics when I lived there often made me reach for the sick pills.

Despite the kudos her brother gets on the economic front, poverty levels have stayed stubbornly the same — and may even have increased — and unemployment remains higher than ever. In other words, the “trickle-down” effect has been zero.

Elsewhere, nothing has changed. A tight circle of dynastic families, some having held power since the Spanish colonial era, continue to dominate the political and business landscape, leaving little opportunity for the new and enterprising.

Forbes Asia estimated that the collective wealth of the 40 richest Filipino families grew from US$34 billion to nearly US$48 billion in 2010-2011. This is equivalent to 76.5 percent of the country's overall increase in gross domestic product in the same period.

The same families were all there again when the Philippines went to the polls for the mid-term legislative elections on May 13. These elections, in which Aquino's Liberal Party exceeded expectations, are regarded as an early indicator of who will follow him into Malacanang Palace.

“Filipinos believe in the 'clean' image of Aquino so they don't see the real picture in which the same people are running the country,” says one Filipina friend. “Same names, only different affiliations, even old enemies in the same parties.”

1 Comment
May 21, 2013    joperd@
A more thorough look at Aquino's term would have spotted his major mistakes.
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