In the aftermath of his mother’s death and burial in the last quarter of 2009, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III overnight became the choice of an astounding 50 percent of the electorate for President of the Republic.

The early surveys showed Aquino III leading the previously unexciting and lackluster field of declared candidates for the post, which at that time included such mind-numbing and ho- hum contenders as Gilberto Teodoro, Jr., Bayani Fernando, Manuel Villar, and Joseph Estrada.

Corazon Aquino’s illness, death and funeral, among other unplanned outcomes, led to a resurgence of the enthusiasm that had propelled her to the Presidency in 1986. But they also, and even more importantly, anointed “Noynoy” Aquino III as his parents’ political heir.

Aquino III’s survey numbers in late 2009 and early 2010 suggested that he had awakened the imagination of the electorate dulled by years of having to choose among candidates who seemed only different but who were actually the same. From the surveys one sensed that most of the voters were very early dismissing the 2010 elections as another contest between tweedledums and tweedledees, and were dangerously resigned to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s hanging on to power, or to someone else as uninspiring, probably an Arroyo surrogate, taking over.

Aquino III’s emergence as the Aquino political heir changed all that. For the first time in many years, the electorate dared imagine that it may actually have a choice this May.

He did touch the core of citizen anguish over the political system and the governments it has inflicted on this country, awakening the aspirations for change and the hunger for a just and prosperous society.

But as it has happened before in both this country as well as in others, citizen identification of Aquino with change might have been based on mistaken assumptions not only about Aquino III, but also about his parents themselves.

About “Ninoy” Aquino’s challenge to the dictatorship and the value of his subsequent martyrdom there is no question, and neither is there any doubt about Corazon Aquino’s commitment to restoring the institutions of liberal democracy. But neither had any coherent critique of Philippine society and its vast problems, and why its so-called democracy gave birth to the Marcos despotism. And neither had any program for the transformation that many expected would be among the legacies of EDSA 1.

Aquino did sign the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law in 1988 — after it had been watered down by the landlord dominated 8th Congress. She had resisted advice, prominently from the USAID, that she abolish land tenancy outright before Congress convened and when she still had lawmaking powers.

USAID consultant and land reform exponent Roy Prosterman had argued that unless land tenancy was abolished, the Philippines would face continuing civil disorder and even a revolution as costly as the Mexican Revolution. Prosterman believed that the key to solving poverty in countries like the Philippines was land redistribution — which may not be rocket science, but which has been validated by the experience of most of the countries in Asia whose growth has outpaced the Philippines’ own pathetic lip service to “development.”

Although described as comprehensive, the program established by CARL, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, was shot full of loopholes huge enough for landlords to drive exemption trucks through.

Among the most common is that one labeled “land use conversion.” By converting agricultural land into industrial, residential or recreational use, landowners could and have been able to avoid having their excess lands distributed to tenant farmers.

Other creative approaches have included making tenants part owners of the land. Among the landowners that have taken the second route are the Cojuangcos, who are still contesting in the Supreme Court the Department of Agrarian Reform’s cancellation of the stock distribution option the family had devised to avoid distributing Hacienda Luisita to its tenants. The Hacienda is among the 1.2 million hectares of prime agricultural land that has escaped CARP coverage through various schemes including “stock distribution options”.

Politics being what it is, and questions about Cojuangco-Aquino plans for it and its tenants being of unquestioned legitimacy, Hacienda Luisita has naturally become an election issue Aquino III can’t shake off no matter how he tries.

Aquino III has promised to eventually divest himself of his Luisita interests, and to distribute it to its tenants, and has refused to be drawn into debating on it — which could suggest that he doesn’t regard the land issue as that crucial to the country’s present and future, his focus being on stopping government corruption, period.

But a New York Times interview with one of his cousins, who is quoted as declaring that the Cojuangcos would not give up either Luisita or the sugar business, is currently helping keep the issue in the public eye. Aquino has declared that Fernando Cojuangco, chief operating officer of the company that owns Luisita, had been misquoted by the Times reporter. But the Times is standing by the accuracy of its story, and seems to have the tapes to prove that Mr. Cojuangco had not been misquoted or his statements taken out of context.

Unfortunate that Aquino III had to use the word “inaapi” (being oppressed) to describe himself in what he insists is a campaign by his rivals for the Presidency to use Luisita against him. Oppression resonates with meaning in popular culture and among Filipino poor communities because it certainly applies to them, particularly to the landless.

Equally disturbing, however, was the report by some community journalists that during his campaign sortie to Catarman, Northern Samar, his retinue had asked the media not to ask questions about, among other issues, Hacienda Luisita.

If the “inaapi” gaffe sounded as If Aquino III was making light of the oppression inherent in the archaic tenancy system, the latter could give people the impression that he’s this early trying to manage the press in the tradition of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Neither helps sustain the hope that Aquino III is this country’s best candidate for reform.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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