Aquino in history
WHAT WILL history make of the second President Aquino? In time, the conventional wisdom that the 2016 elections were a repudiation of Benigno Aquino III and his “daang matuwid” (or straight path) philosophy of governance will be revealed for the superficial analysis it always was. It was an explanation that did not explain, because in fact two presidential candidates running on essentially the same platform of continuity gained more votes combined than the President-elect, because Mr. Aquino remains the most popular president in Philippine survey history, and because the political pushback from his anticorruption drive was never included in the analytical equation.
Maybe history’s verdict on Mr. Aquino will start with this: that despite the odds, he helped place an ex-president, three sitting senators and many other politicians and government officials in detention or behind bars. Even more controversially, he led the political ostracism of a chief justice, who should not have accepted a midnight appointment in the first place and who turned out to have hidden most of his assets, like an iceberg. These political fights had consequences, and in time we will likely see more evidence that the 2016 elections were shaped in part by interests adversely affected by Mr. Aquino’s war on corruption.
It was not, to be scrupulously fair, a comprehensive war; a good number of Mr. Aquino’s friends and allies were included in the order of battle, but public perception eventually focused on the greater number of nonfriends or nonallies who were caught in the conflict. But all those casualties meant that the 2016 vote was partly a referendum on whether political fortunes damaged by Mr. Aquino’s war on corruption could be rehabilitated. From the looks of it, the answer may be an unfortunate yes.
We do not wish to minimize the mistakes and shortcomings of the second Aquino administration. But we disagree with yet another piece of conventional wisdom, this time offered by administration officials or even the President himself, that despite its achievements the Aquino presidency never learned to communicate well.
This is not true; the Aquino administration’s communications work merely reflected the temperament of the President and the dynamics of the political coalition he led. No amount of public relations could disguise the downside of President Aquino’s strong sense of loyalty; he retained incompetent friends or ineffective allies in their positions even when doing so diminished his political capital or worked against the nation’s best interests.
Retaining Transportation Secretary Jun Abaya until the end of the President’s term, or allowing police general Alan Purisima to direct a secret and important Special Action Force mission even while under preventive suspension, or looking the other way for as long as he could while the wounds created by his erroneous appointments of Rico Puno as interior undersecretary or Virginia Torres as Land Transportation Office chief festered—these and other examples showed that a man whose formative years were marked by political betrayals and an exile’s scarcity of friends could not readily break out of his comfort zone even when public interest was already at stake.
This is part of the reason why, in the traditionally opposition-oriented avenues and alleyways of Metro Manila, Mr. Aquino fared worst in terms of public opinion. The daily traffic nightmare was a regularly repeated indictment of the kind of leadership that was hard on enemies but soft on incompetence.
Still, it seems certain that history will look kindly on these and similar achievements: an economy that is $100 billion larger than it was in 2010, a social welfare department that is seven times bigger than in 2010, an assertive and forward-looking foreign policy, an education budget that is almost twice as large as that of 2010, a leadership role among climate-vulnerable countries that helped make the Paris Agreement possible, a landmark multistage peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Reproductive Health Law, a much more robust military. Perhaps the list would be much longer if President Aquino had not wasted so much political capital on the indefensible, such as the Mamasapano tragedy. But in truth it is a good list to start with, and end a term on.
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