Can 'Noynoy' Aquino Beat Corruption in the Philippines?

Sheila Coronel speaking in Hong Kong on August 4, 2010. (Asia Society Hong Kong)

HONG KONG, August 4, 2010 - A year after the death of Corazon "Cory" Aquino and a month after her son Benigno "Noynoy" was sworn in as President of the Philippines, a new wave of optimism is gripping the country, according to award-winning journalist Sheila Coronel. Speaking at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Coronel noted: "There is now optimism and hope that the Philippines has another fresh start, a new opportunity to bring about the changes that are long coming."

Because Cory Aquino led the 1986 revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Coronel argued, Cory's death in August 2009 resulted in a "massive outpouring of emotion over the passing of a democracy icon." However, it also provided an opportunity for the so-called "people's power constituency" to reflect on the slow progress of political reform. "They saw the (May 2010) elections as a way to coalesce and mobilize, and they saw Noynoy as the rightful political heir of Corazon Aquino. And so it was he who won by an overwhelming margin, one of the biggest margins ever in Filipino history," Coronel said.

Noynoy's electoral success is attributed as much to the appeal of his political platform as to his lineage. After nine stormy years under President Gloria Arroyo's rule, Noynoy's anti-corruption policies, underpinned by commitments to reform congress and the judiciary, spoke to a constituency described by Coronel as "fatigued by their own attempts at people power and frustrated by what people power brought about—regimes that didn't change very much."

Coronel noted that unlike past Filipino leaders, "Noynoy's will not be a predatory presidency. He will be an honest president like his mother was. That by itself is a big improvement from the past." She said Noynoy had already made a number of commitments, including the establishment of an independent Truth Commission to "account for the wrongdoings of the past." He has also promised to investigate allegations of tax evasion, abuse of government contracts and procurements, and public works.

Yet at the same time, Coronel pointed out, Noynoy faces formidable challenges: "There are real obstacles to reform in the Philippines—obstacles that have fazed other presidents. First and foremost is the concentration of power in the country. A few hundred families control political power in the Philippines, and have done so for the last hundred years."

Coronel also pointed to an intricate network of political patronage and corruption in which everyone— from the lawmakers to the poorest of the poor—is complicit. "There is a sort of social contract here, that someone powerful will share the benefits of corruption, with different amounts varying depending on their power, all the way down to the ordinary voter, who can then approach a congressman and ask for money for burying a relative or sending a child to school."

According to Coronel, previous attempts at reform in the Philippines have had limited success, "because it is very hard to go against this patronage network." Noynoy, if he is to succeed, must ensure his reforms are sustainable. "He must also appreciate that there can be real bureaucratic resistance." Critically, he will need the support of the public, particularly the "small but influential middle class. This is a powerful constituency but they have been not shown a capacity for sustained reform. Ultimately, Noynoy's success rests on the strength of this untested constituency."

As the Philippines enters a new era in its political history, "the optimism is palpable. It is not something to be scoffed at. The genius of the Aquino family is they are able to address themselves to the common folk. When Noynoy said at his inauguration, 'I may be born to rich parents, but I can feel the ordinary people,' he really touched a chord," concluded Coronel.

Reported by Natali Pearson, Asia Society Hong Kong Center