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The decade in politics: Bossy presidents, good intentions & the obsession to settle scores

Despite its intentions to uphold good, corruption-free governance in the beginning, and while forging peace and defense of Philippine sovereignty will form part of its hallmarks, the presidency of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, says journalist Felipe Salvosa II, is remembered for its ineptitude and an obsession towards revenge
Felipe F. Salvosa II | Dec 20 2019

December is the last month in the tumultuous 2010s, a decade that saw the rise of new political heroes and villains, a changing of the guard in different sectors of society, the growing concern for climate change taking a more desperate turn, and an unending cacophony of opinionated people screaming into the Facebook void. In "The Last 10 Years," a series of pieces scattered over these last 30 days, we look back at what happened to try to figure out what comes next. 


The political decade began with President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III telling jubilant Filipinos during his inaugural at Quirino Grandstand at high noon on June 30, 2010: “Kayo ang boss ko.” It was a pledge to serve the people, to treat them as the boss, and do away with the election fraud and corruption allegations that darkened the previous regime.

In reality, Aquino took over the boss-ship of what Benedict Anderson had described in 1988, and echoed by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in 2012, as cacique democracy in the Philippines: a system whose political class is dominated by local warlords bent on protecting oligarchic interests and not far removed from the feudalism left to us by Spanish colonizers.

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Public support for Noynoy during his six-year tenure (peaking at 70 percent approval in October 2010 based on Pulse Asia data) is rivalled only by the majoritarian approval accorded by Filipinos to the incumbent boss, Rodrigo Duterte, which hit its highest at 88 percent in June 2018.

President Benigno Simeon Aquino III taking his oath before Supreme Court Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales as the Philippines 15th President during inaugural ceremony at the Quirino Grandstand, Rizal Park, June 30, 2010. Photograph by Rey S. Baniquet on Wikimedia Commons

That was because Filipinos believed in Noynoy’s personal integrity, even if his government (panned by the late senator Joker Arroyo as a “student council”) went into various fits of ineptitude (the Quirino Grandstand hostage incident; the Mamasapano encounter; passport, drivers’ license and license plate delays; MRT train breakdowns; “laglag-bala” at the airport; the botched typhoon Yolanda response), and he was surrounded by people who were incompetent, opportunistic or simply corrupt.

The previous boss, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who took power via a military-backed uprising against the popular but scandal-plagued Joseph Estrada in the previous decade, harnessed the vast powers of the presidency to squelch coup plots and impeachment attempts and extend her reign to nine years — the longest since the Marcos dictatorship —through elections marred by allegations of massive cheating.

Filipinos believed in Noynoy’s personal integrity, even if his government went into various fits of ineptitude 

Arroyo took advantage of reenacted budgets to spread largesse and ensure political and military support throughout her unpopular rule, and at the same time prevent economic collapse in the aftermath of the global financial crisis through taxation and stimulus spending.

Unable to extend her power through failed charter-change efforts, and with her candidate, Gibo Teodoro, decidedly losing the 2010 presidential contest, the political and economic classes, almost on cue, switched their allegiance to the new boss, Noynoy Aquino.

Arroyo’s once monolithic party Lakas was decimated by an exodus to Aquino’s Liberals, repeating the post-Marcos pattern of political parties conveniently formed or revived around viable presidential contenders.

The son of democracy icons was swept to power by a combination of public sympathy following the death of his mother, People Power heroine Cory Aquino, and public anger over Cory’s antithesis, Gloria Arroyo, his college economics professor at the Ateneo.

The presidency, however, swallows its occupant, no matter his or her personal character or pedigree.

Philippine former president Gloria Arroyo. was seen as Cory's antithesis. Photograph by Ted Aljibe, AFP

Like Arroyo, Aquino was ensnared by presidential power, with the resulting actions overshadowing his accomplishments and defining his legacy. These were often motivated by vengeance and the desire to settle even the smallest of political scores.

Thus, early into his presidency, an investigation into corruption among military supporters of Arroyo forced ex-armed forces and defense chief Angelo Reyes to take his own life, in dramatic fashion before his mother’s grave in February 2011.

The Arroyo handpicked Ombudsman Gutierrez was replaced by Carpio-Morales during the Noy years. Photographs from ABS-CBN News

The following month, the Aquino-controlled House of Representatives, which had four times been unable to impeach Arroyo, suddenly impeached her handpicked ombudsman, Merceditas Gutierrez, so Aquino could appoint his own graft-buster, Conchita Carpio-Morales.

Nine months later, in December 2011, congressional Liberals hastily cobbled together articles of impeachment against another Arroyo appointee, Chief Justice Renato Corona. Hiding wealth is par for the course among the powers-that-be, but not for Corona, who was convicted by senators over missing entries in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

Like Arroyo, Aquino was ensnared by presidential power, with the resulting actions overshadowing his accomplishments and defining his legacy. 

To complete the purge, ex-president Arroyo, who managed to get elected to the House as representative of her home province of Pampanga, was re-arrested on a non-bailable charge of plunder in connection with her use of lottery funds, in October 2012, months after posting bail on a charge of electoral sabotage.

Even the Church was unscathed — seven bishops were accused of accepting SUVs and other gifts from Arroyo, in a scandal that reached Senate halls. It turned out to be a prelude to a battle royale that saw the Church defeated in its bid to block the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, which the House and the Senate passed under the painful crack of the Liberal Party whip.

Aquino nonetheless learned to “make peace and establish a working relationship” with the ruling class to pursue his reform agenda, wrote Patricio Abinales and Donna Amoroso in the second edition of their acclaimed text, “State and Society in the Philippines.” Apart from RH, Aquino secured passage of important laws hiking taxes on “sin” products and instituting the K to 12 basic education system.

Abad and Aquino. Photograph from ABS-CBN News

Like Arroyo, Aquino used pork barrel and budget powers to achieve his legislative goals. While he did away with the Arroyo practice of delaying passage of the budget and juggling money, Aquino and his budget chief Butch Abad impounded unused funds and reallocated them to their pet projects, under a “Disbursement Acceleration Program” or DAP meant to prop up the economy. Pork from DAP was said to have been used to secure Corona’s conviction at the Senate.

Abad insisted on calling the yearly General Appropriations Act, the “President’s Budget.” The message was that he could do with the outlay anything that he pleased. That included withholding pork from Arroyo holdouts in Congress, a shameless tit-for-tat. Abad, when he represented Batanes in the House, got zero pork from Arroyo.

Pork eventually became Aquino’s undoing. When the P10-billion pork barrel scam was exposed by the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2013, the nation was shocked at the extensive and unprecedented scale of plunder of state coffers. But government prosecutors zeroed in only on the fake NGOs of scam “brains” Janet Lim-Napoles used as conduits by lawmakers for ghost projects. Big-name politicians like Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla were arrested, but a number of Aquino allies who were also in on the scam were spared.

Janet Lim-Napoles attends a hearing at the Philippine Senate, November 17, 2013. ABS-CBN News

This “selective justice” partly explains why anger shifted toward Aquino, who had vowed to end corruption at the beginning of his term. If this was a different country, a corruption scandal as huge as Napoles’s scam would have caused any government or parliament to fall. But this is the Philippines, and Enrile, Estrada and Revilla are practically scot-free.

This “selective justice” partly explains why anger shifted toward Aquino, who had vowed to end corruption at the beginning of his term. 

The Aquino government further tanked when, in 2014 and 2015, the Supreme Court struck down DAP as illegal and unconstitutional, making Aquino and Abad, the program’s “authors, proponents and implementors,” liable for malversation of funds despite their invocations of “good faith.”

Whatever was left of Aquino’s reservoir of goodwill had dwindled by the time he stepped down from MalacaƱang in 2016. The caciques gravitated toward a new boss: Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City.


Next week: Part 2 of Philppine Politics in The Last 10 Years