BENIGNO Aquino III said upon taking office last July that he hoped the “honeymoon period” between him on the one hand and the media and the citizenry on the other would last throughout his entire six-year term. But the next Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia surveys should show whether or not it will even survive his hundredth day.
The “honeymoon period” between Philippine presidents and the media and citizenry is supposed to be a tradition in this part of the woods. For those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of Philippine politics and governance, it refers to the first 100 days in office of a President, or any other official, during which the media and everyone else give him the widest latitude for error, and try not to be overly critical. Being new in the job, the official is still getting his bearings and familiarizing himself with the problems he has to address and the means available to address them.
Some hail the practice as indicative of Filipino high-mindedness, but it’s actually an indication of low expectations and even lower standards: the result of decades of experience with bad governance because of bad choices made during elections, when voters elect leaders on the basis of everything else except their capacity to lead a city or province, or a country that’s been going downhill since it supposedly regained its independence
Suspecting that they’ve once again been saddled with another lemon, both the citizenry and the media hope that a president’s first mistakes aren’t indicative of (1) a fundamental incapacity to govern effectively or even to govern at all; or (2) a proclivity toward corruption; (3) an authoritarian mindset; or (4) plain cluelessness.
There wouldn’t be any need for a honeymoon period if the voters chose qualified leaders in the first place, rather than electing a matinee idol for his good looks, a virtual moron for having a pretty wife, or still another dolt because he can sing and dance like a TV noontime show talent. The honeymoon period is the morning after the night before, when voter intoxication over this candidate’s singing voice, or that candidate’s smile gives way to the realization that he’s going to have to run a country, a province or a city and neither his voice nor winning smile is going to help him do it.
Benigno Aquino III was elected to the Presidency despite a mediocre record in Congress, in the legislative processes of which he was more spectator than participant. But out of sheer nostalgia for the love of country his father showed in 1983 and his mother’s commitment to restoring the institutions of (elite) democracy three years later, his candidacy set off what was almost a mass campaign to get him elected.
Part of the enthusiasm was based on the assumption that because of his provenance, he would be the exact opposite of the most despised President in the country’s history, and that he would end poverty by ending corruption. Some commentators also attributed to Mr. Aquino the capacity not only to move that particular mountain, but also the skill, commitment, vision and dedication to finally realize the centuries-old aspirations of the Filipino people for a society of justice, peace and prosperity.
A honeymoon did ensue between Mr. Aquino and the media and the citizenry as a result. There was some ribbing over his choices for Cabinet and other posts, but commentators either kept quiet or limited themselves to grumbling that he wasn’t only appointing people on the say-so of his sisters, he was also naming others whose qualifications seemed to be limited to their having been his classmates, contributors to his campaign kitty, childhood friends, former Cory Aquino officials, or partners at the shooting range.
Some of his first acts also seemed precipitate, among them the firing of the head of Pagasa for failing to predict what’s basically unpredictable. In contrast, Mr. Aquino has been extremely tolerant of the police, which he said at one point be had to support because he’s their commander–in-chief.
For the flak Mr. Aquino’s getting for the August 23 hostage-taking bloodbath that killed eight Hong Kong and Canadian tourists he can blame the police, but he also brought it on himself. There’s no getting around the fact that he was in default during the crisis, and was physically and mentally absent, allowing “commanders on the ground” to assume control.
Apparently no one realized — Mr. Aquino obviously didn’t — that for its foreign relations implications, resolving the hostaging of foreign nationals can’t be left to the police. Certainly not to the trigger-happy, incompetent, corrupt and totally clueless Philippine police, whose expertise is taking lives, not preserving them–unless, however, the lives involved are their own and those of their fellows.
The last explains why, despite three opportunities, the police snipers did not take out the hostage-taker, a former policeman. But Mr. Aquino’s not being in charge was the root cause of the crisis’ being prolonged, and the hostages’ being killed — and yes, of the reinforcement of the country’s image as the seat of violence and incompetence in Asia, and of the mess it created in Philippine relations with Hong Kong and China.
Mr. Aquino could have made it clear to Police Chief Jesus Versoza that he’ll have his head if the hostages are harmed or end up dead. But he apparently didn’t even do that. He didn’t answer a call from Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang either, which reveals not only an appalling ignorance of protocol but also lack of appreciation of how foreign relations impact on domestic affairs — in this case, on tourism and the 200,000 OFWs in Hong Kong.
This gross ineptitude is inexcusable. Mr. Aquino’s mishandling — or rather, not handling — the situation will make even more of his countrymen leave for other climes, even as many desperately hang on in Hong Kong. If the Philippines were a bus like that tourist bus at the Quirino Grandstand last August 23, they’d shout, Stop this country, I want to get off.