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The Presidency, a Changing of Guards

Philippine President Benigno C. Aquino III
Philippine President Benigno C. Aquino III

After suffering for nine years under the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Filipino people went out en masse to trash her candidates and reject what she represents when they voted last May 2010. When the result of the May 2010 elections was announced, a collective sigh of relief was felt throughout the country.

Who would not feel relief after nine years of being bombarded by corruption and bribery scandals left and right, after hearing so many cries for justice of victims and relatives of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other human rights violations, after constantly fighting for our civil liberties lest it be taken away by the Arroyo administration, and after seeing and feeling how the people’s incomes have eroded and poverty has worsened amid the glowing economic statistics being churned out by the Arroyo government’s spin doctors?

The trashing could have been sweeter if not for the plethora of opposition candidates. Benigno Aquino III won by a clear plurality of votes from his nearest rival former president Joseph E. Estrada. It would have been poetic justice if Arroyo’s chosen one was defeated by a clear majority of votes cast. Nevertheless, the changing of guards was a most welcome development.

Benigno Aquino III was able to ride on the people’s anger against former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. And the fact that his father the late senator Benigno Aquino Jr. and mother former president Cory Aquino were known for standing up to the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos catapulted him to the presidency. Aquino declared his presidency at the most opportune time, after his mother Cory’s death. Thus, his campaign slogan of change and his promise that his administration would be the direct opposite of the much-hated Arroyo administration earned him the votes.

During his inaugural address, President Benigno Aquino III made some bold promises of stamping out corruption and abuse of power, seeking justice, and of addressing the concerns of the poor, who he calls his “boss.” What was sorely lacking then was a policy declaration concerning human rights. President Aquino even made a show of making his convoy stop at stoplights and not use sirens.

During his State of the Nation Address, President Aquino declared his “solution” to the ailing economy and the cash-strapped government: engaging in “Public-Private Partnerships” (PPP). This is no different from the “Build-Operate-Transfer” (BOT) and concession agreements entered into by previous administrations, since the time of the Cory Aquino administration, or the Financial or Technical, Assistance Agreements (FTAA) provided by the Mining Act of 1995. These agreements merely circumvent the patrimony provisions of the 1987 Constitution to be able to open up otherwise protected sectors of the economy such as mining, infrastructure, communication and transportation, basic utilities and services, among others to foreign investments.

He also unveiled his program to address poverty: Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT). The CCT program was started by the previous Arroyo administration. Social Welfare Sec. Dinky Soliman has been the implementor of the very same program since the Arroyo administration.

As far as addressing corruption is concerned, President Aquino seems to be encountering a lot of difficulties. Sure, he has exposed during his State of the Nation Address and later to the media, alleged anomalies his new Cabinet has unearthed, but the public has yet to see one big fish prosecuted. His other moves such as the revocation of midnight appointments of the Arroyo administration and the creation of a Truth Commission have been blocked by the Supreme Court.

Worse, his close friend Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno was linked to jueteng payoffs and President Aquino refused to have him removed. This was followed by the bungling of the August 23 hostage-taking incident, which exposed the ineptness and corruption plaguing the country’s police forces.

President Aquino made his first act forward concerning human rights only this December 10 when he ordered the withdrawal of charges against 43 detained health workers collectively called as the Morong 43. But this was only after the Morong 43 staged a hunger strike and calls for their release from local and international groups were intensifying. Before that, President Aquino adamantly refused to lift a hand to effect their release by saying that it is up to the courts to decide. The last time he was hounded by the issue of the Morong 43, President Aquino, visibly irked, told journalists to please stop asking him about the issue.

But the practice of extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings continues, claiming the lives of 22 more activists. The military’s latest victim Leonard Co, a renowned botanist, and his two companions who were doing a research on tree varieties, were killed just for being in an area where soldiers were supposedly conducting their operations.

As for social justice issues, the attitude of the Aquino administration toward the Hacienda Luisita agrarian dispute, which involves President Aquino’s family, speaks for itself. Likewise, the government’s handling of the Philippine Airlines and the ABS-CBN labor disputes shows that nothing much has changed.

President Aquino is still enjoying a net satisfaction rating of +64, according to a November 27-30 Social Weather Station (SWS) survey. This, said the SWS, shows that the Aquino administration is “having a normal honeymoon period,” which was also enjoyed by his predecessors. Another way of interpreting this is that the Filipino people are still expecting a change in their lives. Pessimism and frustration have not yet crept in.

But if things do not change from the way they are, and the Aquino administration would still take the same track as his predecessors, a lot would change next year, especially because of the impending hikes in toll fees, MRT-LRT train fares, the continuous rise in oil prices, and the piling up of cases of human rights violations and social injustices. And this change would not come from the Aquino administration, but in the people’s attitude toward the government and the way the people would react to issues affecting them.