BENIGNO AQUINO III has an approval rating of between 68 and 70 percent, most probably because he hasn’t done anything scandalous or controversial. That says something about how low Filipinos’ expectations of their leaders are. But you can’t blame them for it, their high expectations having been frequently dashed to pieces, and given how anxious they are to have someone in power better than Mr. Aquino’s predecessor, in comparison to whom even Ferdinand Marcos was already in danger of looking good as she ended her nine-year watch as the (putatively elected) President of the Republic.
Mr. Aquino’s most popular act has arguably been the banning of the blaring sirens (translated as “wang-wang” by the usual Filipino wags) that used to announce the coming of some government functionary’s car or another.
The bishops of the Catholic Church, some of whom the Arroyo regime had bought cheap with Pajeros and “donations,” did try to make Mr. Aquino’s support for the Reproductive Health bill contentious. But they failed because most Filipinos don’t think the bill controversial despite priestly threats of excommunication and calls for civil disobedience, and are in fact hungry for information on the subject.
Neither do Mr. Aquino’s problems with choosing the right officials, about which much has been said, seem to matter to most people as much as the opposition and the usual doom- sayers in media would have it. As for Mr. Aquino’s by now fabled search for a significant other, that has, if anything, only further endeared him to the public, whose love for a good piece of gossip is the stuff of legend.
Mr. Aquino is in short the beneficiary of Filipino disappointment with past leaders as well as of his own conventional approach to governance, which some have described as laid back and the exact opposite of innovative.
But leave it to his publicists to try, anyway, to make a good thing better. As the end of his first year in office, July 1, approached this week, the public was regaled by the revelation that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had left the Philippine Amusements and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) over a billion in the red, that some of its corrupt media-cum-bureaucrat board members were taking kickbacks from the agency’s ad placements, and that Mrs. Arroyo’s House allies received hefty sums in exchange for their opposition to the impeachment charges that almost yearly had been filed at the House of Representatives during Mrs. Arroyo’s interminable watch as President.
Mrs. Arroyo herself and three of her Cabinet secretaries are facing plunder charges, which carry life imprisonment penalties. Senator Panfilo Lacson has also announced that he’s studying documents supposedly provided by former Arroyo government functionaries that could lead to other charges against her.
Earlier, by publicly condemning the sorry record of former ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez in prosecuting the high-profile crooks in the Arroyo administration, Mr. Aquino managed to get her to resign, thereby paving the way for the appointment of someone who would take the job more seriously instead of undermining it. Ms. Gutierrez was rightly thought to be protective of Mrs. Arroyo, her husband, former Gutierrez Ateneo classmate Mike, and the Arroyo children, and would not have looked kindly at plunder charges against her former benefactors. Even earlier, the Bureau of Internal Revenue had filed charges of tax evasion against one of Mrs. Arroyo’s sons and his wife.
Let’s not forget Mr. Aquino’s attempt at defending Philippine sovereignty over the Spratlys by dispatching the country’s sole battleship to patrol the South China Sea, and sending off the Secretary of Foreign Affairs to Washington to solicit a commitment to the defense and arming of the country by its US patron.
It’s enough to make anyone suspect that all this has been timed precisely to mark the end of Mr. Aquino’s first year in office, but no matter. Mr. Aquino did promise to address the corruption that’s among the biggest and worst legacies of the past regime to the long suffering people of the Philippines, as well as to prosecute Mrs. Arroyo and her henchmen for corruption, on the argument that ending corruption would end poverty. It would seem that he’s making good on that promise. As for the “show of strength” re the Spratlys, every macho Filipino found that blood-quickening, thus earning for Mr. Aquino the usual brownie points.
Only the relatively few who expect more than the absence of controversy from governments are complaining that it took the Aquino government long enough to deliver on his campaign promise to prosecute Arroyo.
Still others, and they’re not all in the Arroyo opposition, are saying that far from departing from the policies of the past regime, Mr. Aquino’s government is continuing to implement the same policies, and that, what’s more, the violations of human rights that were among the trademarks of the Arroyo regime are continuing despite a well-publicized pledge to end them.
Meanwhile, the killing of journalists has not stopped, with seven murdered during the first ten months of the Aquino Presidency. And despite Mr. Aquino’s strange belief that he has already done something to end or at least mitigate them, both poverty and its companion, hunger, are afflicting more Filipinos, say the surveys.
Mr. Aquino may have uncommonly high approval ratings, but there are nevertheless those in civil society organizations, academia and the journalism community– who expected much from him in 2010– who’re fast losing hope that Mr. Aquino is the leader they had thought he would be.
These well- meaning folk and the rest of the electorate had no other choice in 2010, Mr. Aquino then being the least worrying among the four leading candidates, primarily because of his parents. He wasn’t necessarily the most competent, or the most visionary. He certainly wasn’t perceived to be the most hardworking once in power either.
Being what amounts to the lesser evil is hardly the leader the country needs. But that is the most the political class has been offering this country and its people since independence. Except for a very, very few (Jose P. Laurel, Claro M. Recto and Lorenzo Tanada come to mind), none of the country’s highest leaders has had the imagination, creativity, vision and program to craft the policies that would lift it out of the rut into which it has progressively fallen. The shallowness of the leadership bench helps explain the country’s steady descent into poverty, chaos and crisis. Despite the best hopes of civil society, academia and the thinking press, Mr. Aquino’s being, in many ways, the conventional issue of an ineffectual political class bodes ill for the future.