May 10 Elections in the Philippines Will Change Little

News Abroad

Luis H. Francia is the author of the just-released A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos (Overlook Press). He teaches at New York University and Hunter College.

On Monday, May 10,Filipinos will troop to the polls to decide who will be their next president. As always, the campaign for Malacañang, the presidential palace, has produced hyperbole, violence, revelations credible and not, and the dispersal of huge amounts of cash. The campaign has generated much heat, little light, and -- yet again -- tremendous hope among the populacethat this time the knight in shining armor on his white horse will indeed ride to the rescue of a beleaguered nation and slay the evildoers.  That good triumph over evil is, of course, the consummation for which Filipinos perpetually and devoutly wish.  In this archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, hope not only springs eternal, it is a veritable Niagara, its inhabitants awash in dreams of change for the better, that the nation recover from a seriously wounded past (much of it self-inflicted) and be a place where lives and promises are fulfilled.

Unfortunately, whoever wins the presidency will inevitably disappoint, for the burdens will simply be too heavy to carry, and the expectations too demanding to be ever met.  There is one area, however, where the president-elect need not fail, cannot in fact fail, if the Philippine body politic is to retain its capacity to hope and dream, both as individuals and members of an often dysfunctional nation.  The question voters will be answering when they choose one of nine candidates is:  who can inspire them?  Who can convince them that he or she will improve the state of a country where approximately ten percent of the population has gone abroad in search of a better life—sending home approximately $17 billion annually—and where the per capita income, according to the International Monetary Fund, is $1,750, much lower than Malaysia’s $7,000 and Taiwan’s $17,000—two countries that lagged for decades behind the Philippines in economic development.

The three frontrunners are Senator Manuel Villar, a savvy billionaire tycoon who made his fortune in real estate and, many critics charge, expanded it considerably while in the Senate; Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, the son of the late former president Corazon Aquino and Senator Ninoy Aquino, assassinated in 1983; and the disgraced and convicted former president (and movie star) Joseph “Erap” Estrada.  The latter was forced to resign on January 20, 2001, when, following charges of corruption that triggered massive street protests in a reprise of the 1986 People Power uprising that forced the Marcoses to flee, the Armed Forces of the Philippines formally withdrew their support and the Supreme Court ruled that the office was now vacant, allowing Vice-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to be sworn in.  Estrada was arrested, and after innumerable procedural delays, found guilty in September 2007 of the crime of plunder by an anti-corruption court and sentenced to forty years in prison.  On October 25, 2007, President Arroyo pardoned the disgraced Estrada on condition that he not run again for national office.  So why is this man with a criminal conviction being allowed a second chance?  A loophole in the Constitution apparently let him claim that since his tenure was interrupted, he could run once more and not be in violation of the law of the land—a narrow view that the official Commission on Elections upheld, stating that “the electorate” should decide.

Beneath the formal trappings of American-style democracy lies the contradictory, beating heart of feudalism—a much older legacy with its origins in Spanish colonial rule that lasted for over three centuries.  Hence, Philippine national elections are really about family dynasties and the continuing rule of the elite.  Noynoy Aquino skyrocketed from his relative obscurity as a junior senator to presidential candidate when the demise of his mother on August 1, 2009 occasioned a nationwide outpouring of grief that revealed the deep unpopularity of President Arroyo—herself the daughter of a president, Diosdado Macapagal (1961-65).  As Cory and Ninoy’s son, Noynoy has a powerful and heavily symbolic legacy to uphold, and is favored to win.

Cory Aquino, for all her shortcomings as a leader, was never dogged by charges of self-enrichment (It helped that she came from one of the wealthiest families in the country, owners of 16,000-acre Hacienda Luisita).  She was someone people trusted, someone you wanted to be on the good side of, a kindly if conservative aunt.   Cory Aquino did mediate a peaceful transition to a post-Marcos era after massive peaceful civilian demonstrations swept the Marcoses out of office, a self-declared “housewife” turned midwife.  Under her stewardship, civil liberties were restored, the press was unfettered, and the courts were liberated from executive interference.  She oversaw the rewriting of the 1973 Marcos-era Constitution that had switched from the American-style presidential form of government to a parliamentary system.  The 1987 Constitution, often referred to as the Freedom Constitution, restored the presidential form and a bicameral legislature, but limited the presidential term to one of six years—rather than two terms of four years each.

Noynoy is seen as more likely to inspire his compatriots, to be open to change for the better.  And given the weight and gravitas of his parents’ reputations, he is believed to be up to the challenge of reining in corruption.  For corruption is the malignancy that vitiates the Philippine body politic, the ever-growing tumor lodged in its very heart.  Ranked by Transparency International in terms of corruptibility, the country is 141st out of 180 nations.  The government loses an annual $5.1 billion in uncollected taxes alone.  It isn’t surprising, then, that cops accept bribes and underpaid military officers harbor thoughts of a coup.

A Noynoy Aquino victory will further empower an already strong alliance of political clans:  the Aquinos and the Cojuangcos.  The big question then, as it has always been in Philippine politics:  as reform-minded as he may be, can he stand up to the intense pressure the clans will inevitably exert to preserve their privileges and interests?

Complicating these elections is the troika of Marcoses campaigning for elective office.  They are back, though whether they were ever gone is the subject of much debate in Manila.  The yet-to-be-convicted Imelda—so far she has been able to beat criminal and civil charges, though many cases remain pending—is running for a congressional seat in Leyte, her home province; her son Ferdinand Jr., or Bongbong, is aiming for a senatorial seat; and Imee, the eldest child, is campaigning for the governorship of Ilocos Norte, the office Bongbong is vacating.  Imelda is a shoe-in -- pun intended -- and so is Imee, as the province of Ilocos Norte is Marcos territory, and where the late deposed strongman has demigod status.  There is a very good chance Bongbong will be elected senator, thus positioning him for a presidential run in 2016. That would indeed be, in the eyes of so many, a cruel irony.

As for the current president, she is running for lower office (the first president to do so) not out of an overwhelming desire to serve the people but to likely evade judgments of her record.  As a member of the House of Representatives, she will be able to forestall any investigation of the highly credible charges of corruption that will almost certainly be lodged against her and her family.  And she is expected to work for a switch to the parliamentary system, with the eventual goal of becoming prime minister.  As rich with democratic potential as the elections seem, they have served in the past simply to cast new players in old roles. There is very little reason to think Monday’s balloting will prove otherwise.

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