Pinoys lose their democracy icon

by Isagani de Castro, Jr.,

Posted at Aug 01 2009 05:22 AM | Updated as of Aug 01 2009 11:00 PM

MANILA – Cory Aquino, the Philippines' greatest icon of democracy in its contemporary history, is gone, and she will be badly missed as the country goes through a potentially volatile political transition. 

Prior to her death, the prayers for the recovery of the 76-year-old former president were also prayers of hope--that she would continue to live so that she would be with the citizenry in their ongoing battle for the defense of democracy.

Yellow ribbons were tied on cars and houses, and virtual ribbons on websites.

As Rafael Alunan, former interior and local government secretary, said: "The color yellow is a symbol for purity, reform and a good time for the Philippines. And I think the people are yearning for a return of those good times when we were all together, we were all united, fighting for the common good."

According to two political analysts interviewed by /Newsbreak, Mrs. Aquino will be missed for what she symbolized.
“She’s most powerful as an icon. Like Cardinal Sin. No one else can play that role. No one,” said Alex Magno, a political science professor of the University of the Philippines.

Following the assassination of her husband, Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr., in August 1983, Mrs. Aquino succeeded in unifying the people behind the struggle for the restoration of democracy and respect for human rights.

The 1986 EDSA revolution and restoration of democracy is considered by the Filipino public as “the most important Philippine event of the [20th] century,” based on a December 1999 Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey. The third most important event in that survey was the 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino, after the 1946 grant of political independence.

(The survey had 1,200 respondents with an error margin of plus/minus 3%. Respondents were supplied with 14 pre-listed events that occurred in the country within the last 100 years.)

Democratic reforms

Despite her lack of qualification as chief executive, the Filipino people rallied behind Mrs. Aquino in the February 1986 presidential elections.

Although she lost in the official Commission on Elections (Comelec) count to President Ferdinand Marcos, the electoral fraud and the cracks in the armed forces led to a successful four-day Edsa people power revolution and the establishment of a revolutionary government.

After assuming the presidency in February 1986, Mrs. Aquino undertook the following democratic reforms:

?    Repealed autocratic decrees and restored political and civil rights, including freedom of the press;
?    Released more than 500 political detainees, including the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army;
?    Established the Presidential Commission on Good Government to go after the Marcoses' ill-gotten wealth;
?    created the Presidential Commission on Human Rights to probe torture, unexplained disappearances and other human rights violations;
?    abolished the puppet legislature, the Batasang Pambansa, and attempted to clean up the local government and the judiciary.

Compromised reforms

As leader of the revolutionary government, Mrs. Aquino had awesome powers at her disposal. With combined legislative and executive functions, she could have instituted key political and socio-economic reforms or policies the country needed for national development.

Instead, analysts said she wasted many opportunities, including not adopting a policy of repudiating bad debts. Given her extreme popularity at that time, the international community would likely have approved it, which would have given the Philippines a lot of breathing space and resources.

She also passed on to Congress the role of instituting key policy measures, starting with agrarian reform, which ended up compromised.

“As far as her legacy is concerned, it begins and ends with that: democracy,” said political economist Tony Gatmaitan, one of the leaders of the Cory Aquino for President movement. 

The first few months of her presidency were euphoric, but the succeeding years of her presidency had major disappointments.

The biggest, perhaps, was Mrs. Aquino’s failure to redistribute her family’s 6,400 hectare Hacienda Luisita to its 6,000 regular and seasonal workers. Instead of distribution of land, critics said the Cojuangco family used a loophole in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law—the stock distribution option—to evade “real land reform.”

“The first disappointment for people was when she launched her CARP and exempted the [political] families,” Gatmaitan said. “Because somehow, she could not elevate herself above the interests of her family, the Cojuangco family.”

Policy failures

Magno said Mrs. Aquino also lacked the vision on how the Philippines would become a strong and developed nation. He faulted her on two other policy failures: population and energy.

Since the Catholic Church played a key role, almost like her political party, in her rise to the presidency, Mrs. Aquino abandoned the Marcos government’s population control policy, which had reduced population growth rate to around 2.5 percent. Instead of promoting artificial contraceptives, the Aquino government offered a menu of options, including the Catholic Church-backed natural family planning. Funding for population control programs was severely cut back.

“The population program was scuttled during her presidency. She was closely aligned with the conservatives like the CBCP [Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines]. So you can literally speak of the ‘Aquino babies.’ Because we had a population surge during her presidency,” Magno said.

The policy decision not to pursue the 600-megawatt Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), without providing alternative power supply for a growing economy and population, caused severe power shortages toward the end of Aquino's term and at the beginning of the Ramos administration.

These, plus at least seven major coups d’etat, negated the high growth economic rates that the Aquino government achieved right after the people power revolution.

“She had a presidency that did not have a clear vision except the vague rhetoric about democracy, respect for human rights,” Magno said. “So her presidency had a mixed outcome. You had, very clearly, redemocratization in the political sphere, no question about that. But there was no redemocratization in the economic sphere, epitomized by Hacienda Luisita.”

Gatmaitan added: “As far as the symbol of democracy and fighting Marcos, Cory was brilliant. Those were her best moments; governing is something else.”

High trust ratings

Mrs. Aquino, however, kept a relatively good trust rating from the public due to the absence of a major corruption scandal that directly affected her personally.

A Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey in February 2009 showed that 60 percent of adult Filipinos had much trust in Mrs. Aquino while 21 percent had little trust, for a net trust rating of +38. 

She had high trust ratings in all social classes, and her trust ratings went up as she reassumed her role as a leader in the struggle for the defense of democracy under the Arroyo government.

Gatmaitan said it will take some time before the Philippines gets a new icon of democracy.


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