Can This Aquino Squash Filipino Corruption?

No sirens blared when Benigno Aquino III was driven to his inauguration five weeks ago. The presidential car even stopped at red lights. Facing the thousands who witnessed his oath-taking, the new president asked, "Have you ever had to endure being rudely shoved aside by the siren-blaring escorts of those who love to display their position and power?"

"So have I," he said to thunderous applause. There would be no more of that, he promised. And none of the corruption and waste that tarred the government of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

"Today marks the end of a regime indifferent to the appeals of the people."

In Manila these days, the optimism is palpable. There is relief that the nine-year Arroyo presidency is over.

Elected by an overwhelming margin, Aquino is striking the right chords by vowing to go after past wrongdoing and running after grafters.

This is not the first time that Filipino aspirations for renewal and reform have been embodied by an Aquino. In 1986, a "people power" uprising swept the self-described housewife Corazon Aquino to the presidency.

Today, her son – who owes his position largely to the outpouring of grief that followed Cory's death last August – is the harbinger of hope.

He has tapped the same reform constituency his mother had mobilized against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos: the urban middle classes who see corruption and patronage-based politics as the root of all their country's problems.

The obstacles that lie in this Aquino's path are no less formidable than they were for his mother a generation ago. The government is bankrupt; its major institutions corrupted and politicized.

The new president has pledged to end the hemorrhage of state resources due to corruption. He has also set up a Truth Commission to investigate Arroyo.

But many of the problems precede Arroyo. Anti-poverty programs, including Aquino's plan to provide universal health insurance and expand basic education from seven to 12 years, are stymied by a lack of resources.

Taxes make up only 15 percent of GDP, one of the lowest ratios in the world. Aquino has put crusaders in charge of the justice department and the revenue office.

He has talked about cleaning up government procurement and going after the excessive perks of officials. But will he succeed where his predecessors, including his mother, have failed?

Previous attempts at reform have foundered on the shoals of the patronage and family connections that cut across Philippine society.

The ties that bind – especially those of class and kinship – are so tight they have survived all challengers.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Congress, where seven of 10 representatives come from families that have been in power for at least a decade, many of them for several generations.

For more than 100 years, political families, including Aquino's own powerful clan, have resisted laws that would limit their wealth and power.

Will they start paying the right taxes and cease dipping their snouts in the public trough on a new president's say-so?

Cory Aquino, revered as a democracy icon and respected for her personal honesty, was unable to go against the interests of her politically influential land-owning family and its allies.

Her government caved in to a conservative Congress and a rebellious army.

At the very end of the 19th century, Servillano Aquino was named a delegate to the 1898 revolutionary Congress. Benigno III, popularly known by his nickname Noynoy, is his great-grandson.

The genius of the Aquinos is that despite their wealth and family history, they have succeeded in identifying themselves with the common folk.

"I am like you," Cory Aquino said during her 1986 campaign. "I am a victim of Marcos," she added, referring to her husband's assassination on the Manila airport tarmac in 1983.

"I was born to famous parents," Noynoy told supporters during his inauguration, but "I know and feel the problems of ordinary citizens."

No doubt he is sincere.

There are many reasons to believe this will not be a predatory presidency like those of Arroyo or Joseph Estrada, who was jailed for plunder nine years ago and whose overthrow brought Arroyo to power.

By this standard, he is an improvement.

But if Aquino is to lead Filipinos to the promised land, he needs to exercise extraordinary leadership and to mobilize a reform constituency that has been more successful in toppling presidents than in bringing about long-lasting change.

Filipinos are adept at mounting brief uprisings against corrupt rulers. But they've not been able to clean up government and rebuild shattered institutions after regimes fall.

Aquino's success depends on whether he can do what no other member of his clan or class has managed: wield public support not only for the challenge of governing but also against the fierce opposition that is sure to form, even among some of his allies, once they are faced with the threat of real reform.

A veteran Filipino investigative reporter, Sheila S Coronel is currently the Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism at Columbia University in New York City. This article first appeared in the Jakarta Globe.