Last Philippine President?

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Last Philippine President?

Noynoy Aquino looks set to be the Philippines’ next president, says Filipino lawmaker Mong Palatino. But will he be the last?

Barring any unforeseen events or extra-legal surprises over the coming days and weeks, Sen. Benigno Simeon ‘Noynoy’ Cojuangco Aquino III of the Liberal Party will likely be proclaimed the next president of the Republic of the Philippines.

Noynoy topped the exit polls and unofficial canvassing of the May 10 elections and, based on tallied results, he received more than 12 million votes, with the next candidate trailing him by about 5 million votes.

Noynoy’s apparent victory is historic for two reasons—he’s the first Philippine president to win an automated election and the first bachelor president. But it could also be a historic presidency for another reason—it could be the country’s last.

If the Lakas-Kampi Party, which still dominates the country’s Congress, succeeds in its plan to adopt a parliamentary form of government by amending the Constitution, Noynoy could be the Philippines’ final president.

Noynoy seemed to many destined to lead the country—his grandfather was the Speaker of the Congress, while his father was a senator and martyred opposition leader; his mother was herself once president. So when Corazon Aquino died last August, Noynoy’s supporters prodded him to run for president, reminding him of his duty to continue the legacy of his parents.

But it would be unfair to attribute the surge in Noynoy’s popularity solely to his ‘royal’ blood line. After all, for many, Noynoy has a spotless reputation as a public servant—no mean feat considering he was a congressman for nine years and senator for three. Throughout his time in public office, Noynoy has not, so far as we are aware, been involved in any corruption scandals or anomalous government contracts, and there were no reports of him having abused his position as a presidential son when his mother was president.

In a typical election year, even this squeaky clean record wouldn’t have been enough to win the presidency, but it seems Filipinos today are desperately looking for leaders like Noynoy.

Or to be more precise, Filipinos today want new leaders who are the opposite of incumbent President Gloria Arroyo. After nine years in power, Arroyo will step down next month as one of the most hated politicians in the country’s modern history, if surveys are to be believed. Aside from being accused of committing electoral fraud, human rights violations and abusing her presidential power, Arroyo is also embroiled in numerous corruption cases.

Noynoy succeeded in presenting himself as the antithesis of Arroyo, promising not to steal and vowing to prosecute Arroyo for all the alleged wrongdoings committed by her and her underlings. If Noynoy’s candidacy was jumpstarted by the death of his mother, his victory was made possible by fanning the anti-Arroyo flames in the country.

But like any heroic figure, Noynoy still had a real fight on his hands during the election. Throughout the three-month campaign, Noynoy had to fend-off criticism from rival political camps and overnight critics. Some accusations were baseless, such as Noynoy’s supposed mental illness. But there were also some more serious allegations that affected his campaign. For example, Noynoy’s qualifications as a national leader were questioned when rivals exposed his uninspiring legislative record, while others believe he exploited the memory of his beloved deceased parents to ‘inherit’ the presidency.

Meanwhile, critics from the left took him to task over the decades-old promise of his family to distribute a huge sugar plantation estate owned by the Aquino family to more than 10,000 small farmers. The estate, known as Hacienda Luisita and located in Tarlac Province, is the second-biggest family-owned plantation in the country and has become a national symbol of the continued reign of feudal landlords and oligarchs in rural Philippines.

So how did Noynoy address the legitimate issues raised by his political enemies? Asked about his lack of experience and underwhelming performance as a legislator, Noynoy’s spokespersons highlighted his integrity and sincerity as a leader. Noynoy for his part downplayed the land ownership dispute by accusing his critics of politicizing what he said is, to him, a simple business matter between landowners and farmer-tenants (Aquino was later forced to pledge to place the controversial estate under the land reform programme in the next five years).

But if Noynoy seemed evasive when responding to charges levelled against him, he was aggressive and precise in identifying the many alleged sins and weaknesses of his main rival, Sen. Manny Villar. Noynoy described Villar as a dangerous and corrupt leader no different from the incumbent president, and went so far as to describe Villar as Arroyo’s secret candidate. This propaganda drive was instrumental in undercutting Villar’s growing support base, which at one point threatened Noynoy’s once insurmountable lead.

During the last leg of the campaign, Noynoy’s celebrity sister was able to broaden the appeal of Noynoy among the poor by joining the campaign sorties of the Liberal Party. Noynoy also bombarded the public with TV infomercials (a move that contradicted earlier Liberal Party claims that Noynoy didn’t have the resources to match the deep war chest of his billionaire rival). After securing the official endorsement of an influential church group last April, Noynoy’s victory seemed assured.

And so it apparently was, according to exit polls and unofficial canvassing tallies. The poll body’s unfinished official count showed Noynoy leading by more than 5 million votes over his closest rival, meaning that even claims of irregularities would be unlikely to tarnish Noynoy’s win. Indeed, Noynoy’s lead is one of the biggest in the country’s election history.

But this landslide victory has been overshadowed somewhat by Noynoy’s failure to completely vanquish the party of the incumbent president. Not only has President Arroyo succeeded in her unprecedented bid to clinch a Congress seat, her party remains the biggest political bloc in the lower house.

Arroyo has the numbers for the speakership, and even if she fails in her bid to become speaker of the House of Representatives her party remains a formidable threat to Noynoy’s new government (Arroyo could use the Congress’s impeachment powers to win concessions from the executive branch).

And should Arroyo become speaker of the lower house, she could ‘command’ members loyal to her to pass a resolution that would empower Congress to amend the Constitution and adopt a parliamentary form of government. Lakas-Kampi Party members, including Arroyo, have been advocating this change for more than a decade.

The only impediment to such a plan in the past has been the recalcitrant opposition of the senate. But today, Noynoy doesn’t have enough senate members to dictate the chamber’s leadership, meaning an anti-Noynoy leadership could end up controlling the senate and working with a pro-Arroyo lower house to undermine the new government. If this happens, and the Constitution is amended, the next national elections might be to select the country’s members of parliament for a parliamentary system of government.

As the new leader of an impoverished nation of more than 90 million people, Noynoy is faced with a daunting task. He has to turn around the economy, restore public confidence in government and unite a deeply divided nation. But with a soon-to-be former president having decided to postpone her retirement from politics, Noynoy’s attention might, sadly for the Philippines, be divided into two: fulfilling his promises to the nation while trying to protect his presidency from those who want to steal it.