The election of Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino as the new president of the Philippines doesn’t, at first glance, seem to represent any significant political change. Aquino, after all, belongs to one of the dynastic clans that have long taken turns ruling the republic in the service of their narrow interests.
But despite Aquino’s privileged roots, something was different in his campaign. He was propelled to victory by a power none of his closest elite rivals had: the political imagination of an electorate starving for reform. Nearly 85 percent of the country’s 50 million voters, half of them young, went to the polls. They gave Aquino a convincing triumph because of the promise they think he represents.
Filipinos saw in the senator the legacy of his mother, former President Corazon Aquino, whose death last year reminded them that she was morally the best president they ever had. She ruled without any hint of self-aggrandizement or any blemish of corruption. And though she didn’t strive for social equality, her political values were fundamentally decent.
They imagined that Benigno Aquino, despite his thin record of accomplishments in the legislature, would reanimate their governing institutions with that decency. And so Aquino now has huge a mandate to launch sweeping changes, from cleaning up the tax system to rooting out graft and corruption, key obstacles to economic and social progress.
Filipinos will be waiting for signs of a crusade for transparency, efficiency, accessibility and fair play within government institutions. Even the unexpected success of the country’s first automated elections has served to whet the people’s appetite for the efficiencies of a modern political culture. By contrast, the ghastly massacre of 57 people last year by a political clan served as a reminder of the entrenched values they reject.
Among Aquino’s first challenges is deploying a cabinet and a force of policy movers of proven honesty, diligence and skill. The country doesn’t lack such talent, especially among the younger generations, and even among the jaded ranks of traditional political parties. He must also show merciless zeal in going after grafters and political lowlife.
But he will be confronted by obstructionists from the old world of “politics as usual,” and most of them will be his social peers—big landowners both rural and urban, bureaucrat capitalists who thrive on political connections, and representatives of privileged dynasties.
The Marcoses, for example, are back, having won seats in the legislature. The deeply distrusted incumbent president Gloria Arroyo, sealed her power-hungry reputation by running for, and winning, a seat in her home district. She’s now expected to vie for the speakership of the House. She’s also likely to forge an opposition to Aquino from the ranks of defeated presidential contenders and their parties. Likely to be counted among his enemies are the aboveground legislators of the Communist Party, which opposes whoever is in power. (They joined the slate of one of Aquino’s top rivals during the election, a slate that included the Marcoses, and served as attack dogs against him.)
Aquino must respond by building an alliance of reform-minded legislators, civic leaders, and grassroots organizations and keep alive the popular clamor for change that propelled him into office. Whether he can govern with competence and has the moral steadfastness and political acuity for the coming battles with obstructionists remains to be seen. What Aquino has right now are the Filipinos’ best wishes, and his first acts must show that he will prove true to them.