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Strong and weak leadership

I did not weep when Ninoy Aquino died. Neither was I part of the mourners that lined the streets when Cory Aquino’s funeral cortege passed by. But the death of former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III brought tears to my eyes. It took time for me to know why.

Upon reflection, I think it has to do with the stark contrast between where we were as a nation just five years ago, and where we are now. Narratives about the man, both as a human being and as a leader, have now emerged like a floodtide. The contrast with the kind of leadership we are experiencing under this regime has raised speculations on what it must mean to present politics.

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The outpouring of grief may be part of the collective sympathy that our people feel about the Aquino family. “Hindi ka nag-iisa” was our people’s way of identifying with the long saga of struggle and pain that this family had gone through. Cory’s death evoked not only memories of that effervescent time when our people finally stood up to an abusive power, but also the high moral ground by which she ruled. P-Noy’s death, besides these residues of emotional capital, is awakening stirrings of an incipient solidarity once again, as more and more of our people are becoming aware of our present communal suffering when compared to the days when he led this nation.

It is this contrast that bears watching, as it may, once again, spark a trend that some have observed: Our people tend to vote for the exact opposite of what the previous leader has been. Noynoy Aquino rose from the shadows not only because of a wellspring of goodwill drawn from the death of his sainted mother, but also because the Arroyo regime had sunk us into a quicksand of corruption and institutional decay. “Daang matuwid” found resonance among those sick of such scandals as the wholesale bribery behind the ZTE Broadband deal with China, and the coddling of warlord-politicians who deliver votes on the ground such as the Ampatuans who murdered journalists and oppositionists without blinking.

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The memory of P-Noy locking up a former president and big-time plunderers, and resolutely pursuing an unprecedented impeachment case against a chief justice, is now contrasted with the mere reshuffling of corrupt officials and the glossing over of billions pilfered by PhilHealth executives. The high praise of multilateral institutions like the World Bank for P-Noy’s handling of the economy and the effort to make it inclusive, like tripling the budget for social services such as universal health coverage, education, and the conditional cash transfer program—said to be the best managed in the world at that time—is putting to shame the Duterte administration’s vaunted “political will” in getting things done. Take as an example its gross ineptitude in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. The severe lockdowns led to the consequent loss of at least 7 million jobs, and while President Duterte keeps excusing the inadequacy of the health system as due to lack of funds, at least P160 billion remains unspent for vaccination and other intended interventions. Some speculate that the money is being reserved as a war chest for the May 2022 elections.

But perhaps more significant is the contrast in character. P-Noy was a regular guy dismissed as an intellectual lightweight and derided as weak and having mental health issues. Mr. Duterte is a swaggering tough guy who made such blustering claims as ending the war on drugs in six months. Yet the record shows that it was P-Noy who had the gumption to push “sin taxes” and the law on reproductive rights against moneyed lobbyists and the fierce opposition of the Church. It was P-Noy who took on China and fought for our rights over the West Philippine Sea in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Mr. Duterte has cowered in fear of an imaginary war, even warning critics not to dare oust him from power because Chinese President Xi Jinping supposedly has his back.

Mr. Duterte posed as a populist, yet treated the poor as scum to be eliminated, coming down hard with his kamay na bakal on those who dared to stand in the way. P-Noy was branded an elitist, yet humbly treated our people as his “boss,” serving quietly, without fanfare.

Ultimately, it is not class lines, or being “red,” “DDS,” or “dilawan,” that divides this country. The real separation is between those on the side of the good, and those on the side of evil. Those on the side of the good may wear the face of weakness, and those on the side of evil may look overwhelmingly powerful. But as P-Noy has shown, it is goodness that gathers power to change governance, drawing into its circle those decent and incorruptible forces that, however small, eventually erode the gates of hell in our society.

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Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, Commentary, Melba Padilla Maggay, Noynoy Aquino, PNoy
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